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Oil billionaire, Sergei Antonovich, travelled behind tinted windows in a big black glossy four-wheel drive. Two car-loads of bodyguards flanked him, in front and behind. Such a sight was worthy of note en route to a remote Russian village like Tsokhrai. But everyone who saw the cavalcade pass knew exactly who it was, for Sergei's grandmother was well known locally, and her grandson always visited her on Easter Day.
Sergei was looking at the road that he had turned from a dirt track into a broad highway to facilitate the transportation needs of the coach-building factory he had set up to provide employment in this rural area. In the winters, when once he had lived here, the road had been thick with mud and often impassable by anything more sophisticated than a farm cart. When it had snowed, the village had been cut off for weeks on end. Sometimes even Sergei still found it hard to believe that he had spent several years of his adolescence in Tsokhrai, where he had suffered the pure culture shock of an urban tearaway plunged into a rustic nightmare of clean country living. At the age of thirteen, he had been six feet tall, a gang member and embryo thug, accustomed to breaking the law just to survive. His grandmother, Yelena, had been barely five feet tall, functionally illiterate and desperately poor. Yet Sergei knew that everything he had become and everything he had achieved in the years since then was down to the indefatigable efforts of that little woman to civilise him.
The convoy came to a halt outside a humble building clad in faded clapboards and sheltering behind an overgrown hedge. The bodyguards, big tough men who wore sunglasses even on dull days and never smiled, leapt out first to check out the area. Sergei finally emerged, a sartorial vision of elegant grooming in a silk and mohair blend suit that was superbly tailored to his broad-shouldered powerful physique. His ex-wife, Rozalina, had called this his 'annual guilt pilgrimage' and had refused to accompany him. But his visit was enough reward for the elderly woman who would not even let him build her a new house. Yelena, Sergei reflected grimly, was the only female he had ever met who wasn't eager to take him for every ruble she could get. He had long since decided that extreme greed and an overriding need to lionise over others were essentially feminine failings.
As Sergei strode down the front path towards the dwelling, villagers fell back from where they were gathered in its doorway and an awe-inspired silence fell. Yelena was a small plump woman in her seventies with bright eyes and a no-nonsense manner. She greeted him without fuss, only the huskiness of her voice and her use of the diminutive name 'Seryozh' for him hinting at how much her only grandchild meant to her.
'As always you are alone,' Yelena lamented, guiding him over to the table, which was spread with a feast of food to satisfy those who had just finished practising a forty-day fast in honour of the season. 'Eat up.'
Sergei frowned. 'I haven't been—'
His grandmother began to fill a large plate for him. 'Do you think I don't know that?'
The bearded Orthodox priest sitting at the table, which was decorated with flowers and painted eggs, gave the younger man who had rebuilt the crumbling church tower an encouraging smile. 'Eat up,' he urged.
Sergei had skipped breakfast in anticipation of the usual gastronomic challenge that awaited him. He ate with appetite, sampling the special bread and the Easter cake. Throughout, he was approached by his grandmother's visitors and he listened patiently to requests for advice, support and money, because he was also the recognised source of philanthropy in the community.
Yelena stood by watching and concealing her pride. She was wryly aware that her grandson was the cynosure of attention for every young woman in the room. That was understandable: his hard-boned dark features were strikingly handsome and he stood six feet three inches tall with the lean powerful build of an athlete. As always, however, Sergei was too accustomed to female interest to be anything other than indifferent to it. His grandmother had a fleeting recollection of the lovelorn girls who had dogged his every step while he was still a boy. Nothing had changed; Sergei still enjoyed an extraordinary level of charisma.
Sergei was mildly irritated by his female audience and wondered how much Yelena had had to do with the surprising number of attractive well-groomed young women milling about. His concentration, however, had only to alight on his grandmother, though, for it to occur to him that she looked a little older and wearier every time he saw her. He knew she was disappointed that he had failed to bring a girl home with him. But the women who satisfied his white-hot libido in his various homes round the world were not the type he would have chosen to introduce to a devout old lady. He recognised that she was desperate to see him marry and produce a family. It would have surprised many, who saw Sergei solely as an arrogant, notoriously cold-blooded businessman, to learn that he actually believed that he owed it to Yelena to give her what she wanted.
After all these years, what thanks had Yelena yet reaped from taking a risk on her once foul-mouthed and defiant grandson? While her guardianship had turned Sergei's life and prospects around, life for her had remained very tough. His immense wealth and success meant virtually nothing to her, yet he was her only living relative. Her husband had been a drunk and a wife-beater, her son had been a car thief and her daughter-in-law an alcoholic.
'You worry about Yelena,' the priest noted sagely. 'Bring her a wife and a grandchild and she will be happy.'
'If only it were so easy as you make it sound,' Sergei quipped, averting his gaze from the excess of cleavage on display as a nubile beauty hurried forward to pour him another coffee.
'With the right woman it is that easy!' The priest laughed with the pride and good humour of a family man who had six healthy children.
But Sergei harboured a deep abiding aversion to the matrimonial state. Rozalina had proved to be a very expensive mistake. And, more significantly, even a decade after the divorce he could not forget the child she had aborted to protect her perfect body. He had never told Yelena about that, as he had known it would have broken her heart and troubled her dreams. He also knew, noting the depth of the lines on her creased and weathered face, that she was on the slippery slope of life and that time was of the essence. Some day there would be no one left to tell him that the noise of his helicopter landing nearby had traumatised her pig and stopped her hens laying. It was a bleak thought that made his conscience stab him. Who had done more for him and who had he rewarded least? If any woman deserved a bouncing baby on her lap, it was Yelena Antonova.
Sergei was still mulling over the problem that afternoon when his grandmother asked him if he ever ran into Rozalina. He managed not to wince. He was a loner, he always had been, and he found personal relationships a challenge. He loved the cut and thrust of business, the exhilaration of a new deal or takeover, the challenge of cutting out the dead wood and increasing profit in the under-performers, the sheer satisfaction of making a huge financial killing. If only marriage could be more like business with clear-cut rules and contracts that left no room for misunderstandings or errors!
An instant later, his high-powered brain kicked up a gear and he thought, Why not? Why the hell shouldn't he choose a wife and get a child by the same means in which he did business? After all, trying to do it the old-fashioned way had been catastrophic.
'Is there anyone?' Yelena asked with a guilty edge that told him she had been holding back on that question about his private life all day.
'Perhaps,' he heard himself say, holding out a thread of hope or possibly a foundation for a future development.
And, that fast, the plan began forming. This time around, Sergei decided, he would take the professional practical approach to the institution of marriage. He would draw up a list of requirements, put his lawyers in charge and urge them to use a doctor and a psychologist to weed out unsuitable applicants for the role he envisaged. Of course the marriage would be short-term and he would retain custody of the child. He immediately grasped the dichotomy of his preferences. He didn't want a wife who would do anything for money, but he did want one prepared to give him a child and then walk away when he had had enough of playing happy families for Yelena's benefit. But somewhere in the world his perfect matrimonial match had to exist, Sergei reasoned. If he was specific enough with his requirements he would not even have to meet her before the wedding. Energised by that prospect, and once back behind the privacy of the tinted windows of his four-by-four, he began to make bullet points on his notebook computer.
When Alissa saw her sister, Alexa, climbing out of a totally unfamiliar fire-engine-red sports car, she was filled with a lively mix of exasperation, bewilderment and impatience. Even so, a strong thread of relief bound all those disparate emotions together and she hurtled downstairs, a tiny slender blonde with a mass of silvery pale hair and clear aquamarine eyes.
She flung open the front door of the cottage and the questions just erupted from her in a breathless stream. 'Where have you been all these weeks? You promised you'd phone and you didn't! I've been worried sick about you! Where on earth did that fancy car come from?'
Amusement gleaming in her eyes, Alexa strolled forward. 'Hi, twin, nice to see you too.'
Alissa hugged her sister. 'I was going out of my mind with worry,' she admitted ruefully. 'Why didn't you phone? And what happened to your mobile phone?'
'It broke and I got a new number.' Alexa wrinkled her nose. 'Look, things got very complicated and I kept on deciding to wait until I had something more concrete to offer you—and then when I finally did have it, I thought it would be easier to just come home and tell you face to face.'
Alissa stared at her sister, not understanding and not expecting to, either. It had always been that way because, although the girls had been born identical, it had been clear from an early age that below the skin they were two very different personalities. Alexa had always been the single-minded, ambitious one, quick to fight and scrap for what she wanted, and she made enemies more easily than she made friends. Alissa was quieter, steadier, occasionally tormented by an overdeveloped conscience and altogether more thoughtful. At twenty-three years of age, the sisters were less obviously twins than they had been as children. Alexa wore her long silvery blonde hair sleek, layered and shoulder length while Alissa's was longer and more usually confined in a ponytail. Alexa wore fashionable, often provocative clothing and revelled in the attention men awarded her, while Alissa dressed conservatively and froze like a rabbit in headlights when men homed in on her more understated charms.
'Where's Mum?'Alexa asked, flinging her coat down in a heap and walking into the kitchen.
'She's at the shop. I came home this afternoon to do the accounts,' Alissa confided, putting the kettle on to boil. 'I gather you got a job in London.'
Alexa gave her a rather self-satisfied smile and leant back against the kitchen counter. 'Of course I did. I'm a whizz at selling luxury cars and I've earned a lot of commission. How's Mum?'
Alissa pursed her lips. As good as she's ever going to be. At least I don't hear her crying at night any more—'
'She's getting over it? About time,' Alexa pronounced with approval.
Alissa sighed. 'I don't think Mum's ever really going to get over it—particularly not while Dad's parading his fancy piece round the village. Or with all this debt still hanging over her, not to mention having to sell her home into the bargain…'
Alexa gave her a wide smile. 'Well, I was going to ask you whether you wanted the good or the bad news first. On the way here I stopped off at the solicitor's and told him to go ahead and agree a financial settlement for the house. I also gave him enough money to settle the bills. Prepare yourself for a surprise: I've got the cash to pay off our bastard of a father!'
'Don't talk about Dad like that,' Alissa said uneasily while she struggled to accept the dramatic assurance that the other woman had just voiced. Although I agree with the sentiment.'
'Oh, don't be so mealy-mouthed!' Alexa urged tartly. 'Mum loses her son and my boyfriend in a ghastly accident, nurses Dad through his cancer scare and what's her reward? Dad takes off with a hairdresser young enough to be his daughter!'
'You just said you've got enough money to pay off Dad and more for the bills—how is that possible? You've only been away three months.' Alissa was frowning. She wanted so badly to believe it was possible, but her native wit was telling her that even though Alissa was a terrific saleswoman she still didn't have that kind of earning power.
'You could say that I went for a new job with a big cash payment up front. As I said, there's enough to settle all Mum's bills and pay off Dad,' Alexa repeated, keen to make that salient point again.
Alissa was wide-eyed with disbelief. As well as enough to buy that car outside and renew your designer wardrobe?'
Alexa's smile evaporated as she gave her twin a cool accusing scrutiny. 'You've already noticed the label on my new coat?'
'No, it just has that look. That sophisticated look that expensive clothes always seem to have,'Alissa advanced ruefully. 'What kind of a job pays that much money?'
'Didn't you hear what I told you?' Alexa demanded thinly. 'I've saved our bacon—I have enough money to sort out all Mum's problems and give her back her self-respect and security.'
'That would take a miracle.' Alissa was convinced that her sister was wildly exaggerating the case.
'In today's world, you have to compete and work very hard and make sacrifices to bring about a miracle.'
At that reference to making sacrifices from a young woman who had never demonstrated the smallest leaning in that direction, Alissa stole a troubled glance at her sister. 'I don't understand.'
As I said, it's complex. For a start I'm afraid I had to sort of borrow your identity.'