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Lucas Vieira was mad as hell.
His day had not gone well. Not gone well? Lucas almost laughed.
His day had been chaos. Now, it was rapidly turning into catastrophe.
It had started with a mug of burned coffee. Lucas had not even known there could be such a thing until his P.A.his very temporary P.A.had brewed a pot of something black, hot and oily and poured him a cup of it.
One taste, and he'd shoved the thing aside, flipped open his cell phone to check his messages and found one from the same fool of a reporter who'd been badgering him for an interview the past two weeks. How had the man gotten his number? It was private, as was the rest of Lucas's life.
Lucas cherished his privacy.
He avoided the press. He traveled by private jet. His two-level penthouse on Fifth Avenue was accessible only via private elevator. His estate on the ocean, in the Hamptons, was walled; the Caribbean island he'd bought last year was festooned with No Trespassing signs.
Lucas Vieira, Man of Mystery, some wag had once called him. Not exactly true. There were times Lucas couldn't avoid cameras and microphones and questions. He was a multi-billionaire, and that stirred interest.
He was also a man who had risen to the top in a profession where lineage and background had significant meaning
And he had neither.
Or, rather, he didbut not the kind Wall Street generally preferred. Not the kind he would discuss, either. The only questions he would ever consider were those that concerned the public face of Vieira Financial. As for how Vieira Financial had come to be such a powerhouse, how Lucas had come to be such a success at thirty-three.
He had tired of being asked, so he'd finally offered a response in a recent interview.
"Success," he'd said, in his somewhat husky, lightly accented voice, "success is when preparation meets opportunity."
"That's it?" the interviewer had said.
"That's it," Lucas had replied, and he'd unclipped the tiny mike from the lapel of his navy wool Savile Row suit jacket, risen to his feet, walked past the cameras and out of the studio.
What he would never add was that to reach that point, a man could permit nothing, absolutely nothing, to get in his way.
Lucas frowned, swung his leather chair away from his massive Brazilian rosewood desk and stared blindly out the wall of glass that overlooked midtown Manhattan.
Which brought him directly back to today, and how in God's name was he going to keep to that credo?
There had to be a way.
He had learned the importance of letting nothing come between a man and his goals years ago when he was a boy of seven, a dirty, half-starved menino de ruaa kid living on the streets of Rio. He picked tourists' pockets, stole whatever he could, ate out of restaurant trash bins, slept in alleys and parks, although you didn't really sleep when you had to be alert to every sound, every footfall. There was no way out.
Brazil was a country of extremes. There were the incredibly rich who lived in homes that defied description, and the incredibly poor, the favelados, who eked out an existence in the favelas, the shanty towns, that clung to Rio's hillsides. Lucas was not even one of them. He was nothing. He was vermin. And what seven-year-old could change that?
All he had was his mother. And then, one night, a man she'd brought home took a look at Lucas, trying to make himself invisible in the corner of their cardboard shack, and said forget it, he was not going to pay good money to lie with a puta while her kid watched.
The next day, Lucas's mother walked him to the dirty streets of Copacabana, told him to be a good boy and left him there.
He never saw her again.
Lucas learned to survive. To keep moving, to run when the cops showed up because they'd as soon beat the crap out of you as not. Then, one night, somebody yelled, "Bichos!" but Lucas couldn't run. He was sick, half-delirious with fever, dehydrated after vomiting up what little was in his belly.
He was doomed.
Except, he wasn't.
On that night, his life changed forever.
Some do-gooding social worker was with the police. Who knew why? It didn't matter. What did matter was that she took him to a storefront that housed one of the few organizations that saw street children as human. There, they pumped him full of antibiotics, gave him fruit juice to drink and, when he could keep that down, food. They cleaned him up, cut his hair, dressed him in clothes that didn't fit, but who gave a damn?
The clothes were free of lice. That was what mattered.
Lucas wasn't stupid. In fact, he was bright. He'd taught himself to read, to do math. Now, he attacked the books they gave him, observed how others behaved, learned to speak properly, to remember to wash his hands and brush his teeth, to say obrigado and por favor.
And he learned to smile.
That was the hardest thing. Smiling was not a part of who he was, but he did it.
Weeks passed, months, and then there was another miracle. A North American couple showed up, talked with him for a little whileby then, Lucas had picked up passable English from one of his teachersand the next thing he knew, they took him to a place called New Jersey and said he was now their son.
He should have known it wouldn't last.
Lucas had cleaned up nicely. He looked cute. Black hair, green eyes, golden skin. He smelled good. He spoke well. Inside, though, the boy who trusted no one was still in charge. He hated being told what to do and the New Jersey couple believed children should be told what to do, every minute of every hour of every day.
Things deteriorated rapidly.
He was not grateful, his would-be father said, and tried to beat gratitude into him. His heart was owned by demons, his would-be mother said, and demanded he seek salvation on his knees.
Eventually, they said he would never be any good. On his tenth birthday, they drove him to a hulking gray building and handed him over to Child Services.
Lucas spent the next eight years going from foster home to foster home. One or two were okay but most of them Even now, as an adult, his fists knotted when he thought back to some of what he and others had endured. The last place was so terrible that at midnight on the day he turned eighteen, he'd tossed the few things he owned into a pillowcase, slung it over his shoulder and walked out.
But he had learned what would become the single most important lesson of his life.
He knew precisely what he wanted.
Respect. That was it, in a word. And he knew, too, that respect came when a man had power. And money. He wanted both.
He worked hard, picked crops in New Jersey fields during the summer, did whatever manual labor he could find during the winter. He got his GEDhis General Educational Diplomabecause he had never stopped reading and reading led to learning. He enrolled in a community college, sat through classes when he was exhausted and desperate for sleep. Add a helping of socially acceptable good manners, clothes that fit the long, leanly muscled body of the man he had become, and the way to the top suddenly seemed possible.
More than possible. It was achievable.
At thirty-three, Lucas Vieira had it all.
Almost, he thought grimly, on this day that had started with bad coffee and an inept secretary, and he had no one to blame but himself.
Anger surged through him and he shot to his feet and paced the length of his big office.
A bad sign, that uncharacteristic show of fury. Learning to contain one's emotions was also necessary for success. Still, it wasn't as bad as his having missed the signs of his current mistress's unrealistic reading of what she'd called a relationship.
When he'd thought about it at all, he'd called it an affair. Whatever it had been, he was on the verge of disaster. He was going to lose buying Leonid Rostov's twenty billion dollar corporation. And the deal was close, tantalizingly close to finalization.
Everybody wanted the Rostov holdings but Lucas wanted them more. Adding them to his already formidable empire would validate everything he had worked so hard to become.
A few months ago, when word got out that Rostov might be selling, that he was coming to New York, Lucas had taken a gamble. He had not sent Rostov letters or proposals. He had not phoned the man's Moscow office. Instead, he'd sent Rostov a box of Havana cigarsevery photo of the Russian showed him with a cigar in his teethand a business card. Across the back he'd written, Dinner in New York next Saturday, 8:00 p.m., the Palace Hotel.
Rostov had swallowed the bait.
They'd had a leisurely meal in a private room. There was no talk of business. Lucas knew Rostov was sizing him up. Rostov ate heartily and drank the same way, Lucas ate sparingly and made each drink last. At the end of the night, Rostov slapped him on the back and invited him to Moscow.
Now, after endless flying back and forth, negotiating through translatorsRostov's English was chancy but how could Lucas fault it when his Russian began with zdravstvujhelloand ended with dasvidaniya?
Now, Rostov was in New York again.
"We have one more meal, Luke-ahs, one bottle of vodkaand then I will make you happy man."
Only one problem.
Rostov was bringing his wife.
Ilana Rostov had joined them the last time Lucas was in Moscow. She had a beautiful if surgically altered face; diamond earrings dangled like Bolshoi chandeliers from her ears. She moved in a cloud of choking perfume and she was fluent in English; she'd served as her husband's translator that night.
She'd also had her hand buried in Lucas's lap beneath the deep hem of a crisply starched tablecloth.
Somehow, Lucas had made it through the meal, the translator he'd hired for the evening oblivious, Rostov oblivious, only Lucas and Ilana Rostov aware of what was happening. He had barely escaped with his dignity, never mind anything else, intact.
And Rostov was bringing her with him tonight.
"No translators," he'd said firmly. "Translators are functionaries of the state, da? You can, of course, bring a voman. But for talking, my Ilana will take care of you as good as she will take care of me."
Lucas had almost laughed. And he could laugh this time, because he had an ace up his sleeve.
Her name was Elin Jansson. Elin, born in Finland, spoke flawless Russian. She was a model; she was Lucas's current mistress. She would be his date, his translator.
And his protection against Ilana Rostov.
Lucas groaned, went to the window wall behind his desk and pressed his forehead against the cool glass.
It had all seemed so simple. He should have known better. Life was never simple, and today had proved it.
Lucas swung around. His temporary P.A. smiled nervously from the doorway. She was young and she made lousy coffee but far worse, no matter what he did to make her feel comfortable, she remained half-terrified of him. Right now, she looked as if one strong gust of wind might blow her over.
And well she should look exactly that way, he thought grimly. He had left orders that he was not to be disturbed.
"What is it, Denise?"
"It's Elise. Sir." The girl swallowed dryly. "I knocked but you didn't" She swallowed again. "Mr. Rostov called. I told him you were unavailable, just the way you said. And he said to tell you that he and Mrs. Rostov might be a few minutes late to meet you and" Her voice trailed off.
"You've told me," Lucas said crisply. "Is there anything else?"
"I justI just wondered ifif I should phone the restaurant andand tell them there'll be only three for dinner."
Merda! This was going from bad to impossible. Did the entire world know what had happened?
"Did I ask you to do that?"
"No, sir. I just thought"
"Don't think. Just do what you're told." The girl's face collapsed. Hell. So much for controlling his emotions. "Denise. I'm sorry I snapped at you."
"It's Elise," she said in a wobbly voice. "And you don't owe me an apology, sir. I justI mean, I know you're upset "
"I am not upset," Lucas said, forcing a smile the way he'd done when he was a boy. "Why would I be upset?"
"Wellwell, Miss Janssonwhen she was here a little while ago" Another gulping swallow. "Mr. Gordon was at my desk. And we couldn't help but hearI mean, I couldn't stop Miss Jansson from going by me and then, once she got inside your office."
"So," Lucas said, through his teeth, "I had an audience." He attempted a smile but suspected it was more a grimace. "What about everyone on the other floors? Were they in attendance, too?"
"I don't know, Mr. Vieira, sir. I could ask around, if that's what"
"What I want," Lucas said, "is that you never mention this again. To me or anyone else. Is that clear?" The girl nodded.
Mental note, Lucas thought dryly. Offer to quadruple regular P.A's salary when she returns from vacation if she swears never to leave her desk again barring death, disease, or God forbid, marriage.
"It is, sir, and I want you to know how sorry I am that you and Miss Jansson"
"Go back to your desk," Lucas snapped. "And do not interrupt me again or you'll find yourself at HR, collecting your final check. Understood?"
Apparently, it was. Denise, Elise, whoever in hell she was, slunk off, shutting the door behind her. Lucas glared at it for a couple of seconds. Then he sank into the chair behind his desk, tilted it back and stared at the ceiling.
Wonderful. In a couple of hours, he'd be meeting with a man who spoke little English and a woman who only wanted to get her hands inside his fly. He had no translator, and now his private life was the topic of discussion among his employees.
Why wouldn't it be?
Elin had made one hell of a scene, storming in, demanding to know about "that blonde bimbo" as she tossed a photo on his desk. It had appeared online, on some gossip site, she said. One look and Lucas knew it was a Photoshopped miracle but done so carelessly that the "bimbo"an actress, the text saidseemed to hover next to him, her feet a few inches off the ground.
He'd looked up, already smiling, a second away from telling Elin exactly that. Then he'd looked at her icy eyes, the grim set of her mouth, and inconsequential annoyances suddenly began to add up.
Elin's little makeup bag, left in a vanity drawer. The jeans, shirt, and sneakers left in his closet. So she could get out of a cab at her place at seven in the morning, she'd purred, without raising eyebrows.