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Narciso Valentino stared at the box that had been delivered to him. It was large, made with the finest expensive leather, trimmed with velvet rope, with a horseshoe-shaped clasp made of solid twenty-four-carat gold.
Normally, the sight of it brought anticipation and pleasure.
But the ennui that had invited itself for a long-term stay in his life since he'd turned thirty last month leached excitement from him as the stock market leaked money after a juicy disaster.
Lucia had accused him of turning into a boring old man right before her diva exit out of his life two weeks ago.
He allowed himself a little grin of relief. He'd celebrated her departure with a boys' weekend ski trip to Aspen where he'd treated himself to a little palate cleanser in the form of a very enthusiastic Norwegian ski instructor.
But much too quickly, the jaded hollowness had returned.
Rising from his desk, he strode to the window of his seventieth-floor Wall Street office and stared at the New York skyline. Satisfaction eased through him at the thought that he owned a huge chunk of this city.
Money was sexy. Money was power. And The Warlock of Wall Streetas the newspapers had taken to calling himnever denied himself the pull of power and sex.
The opportunity to experience two of his favourite things lay within the package on his desk.
Yet it'd remained unopened for the last hour
Shrugging off the lethargy, he returned briskly to his desk and flipped the clasp.
The half mask staring up at him from a bed of black satin was exquisite. Pure silver edged with black onyx and Swarovski crystals, its intricate design and flawless detail announced the care and attention that had gone into creating it. Narciso appreciated care and attention. It was what had made him a millionaire by eighteen and a multibillionaire by twenty-five.
His vast wealth was also what had gained him admission into Q Virtus, the world's most exclusive gentlemen's club, whose quarterly caucus invitation was the reason for the mask. Two four-inch-long diamond-tipped pins held the mask in place. Pulling them out, he flipped it over to examine the soft, velvet underside, which held the security microchip, his monikerThe Warlockand the venue, Q Virtus, Macau. He ran his thumb over the smooth surface, hoping to summon a little enthusiasm. Failing miserably, he set the mask down and glanced at the second item in the box.
Zeus, the anonymous head of Q Virtus, always provided club members with a discreet list of business interests who would be attending the caucuses. Narciso had chosen not to attend the last two because he'd already dealt with those lists' major players.
His gaze skimmed the heavily embossed paper and his breath caught. Excitement of a different, dangerous kind sizzled through him as the fourth name jumped out at him.
Giacomo ValentinoDaddy dearest.
He perused the other names to see if anyone else on the list would make his attendance worthwhile.
His lips twisted. Who the hell was he kidding?
One name and one name only had become the deciding factor. There were one or two business interests worth cultivating during the two-day event, but Giacomo was who he intended to interact with.
Although perhaps interact was the wrong word.
Setting the list down, he fired up his computer. Entering the security codes, he pulled up the file he kept on his father.
The report his private investigator updated on a regular basis showed that the old man had rallied a little from the blow Narciso had dealt him three months ago.
Rallied but not fully recovered. Within minutes, Narciso was fully up to speed on his father's latest business dealings.
He didn't fool himself into thinking it gave him any sort of upper hand. He knew his father kept a similar file on him. But the game wouldn't have been this interesting if advantages had been one-sided. Nevertheless Narciso gained a lot of satisfaction from knowing he'd won three of their last four skirmishes.
He was contemplating the latest approach to his annihilation campaign when his phone buzzed.
Allowing the distraction, he thumbed the interactive surface and read the message from Nicandro Carvalho, the closest thing he had to a best friend.
Still caught in premature midlife-crisis mode, or are you ready to shake off that clinging BOM image?
Boring old man. A corner of his mouth lifted as his gaze slid to the list and his father's name. Suddenly energised, he whipped back a response.
BOM has left the building. Care to get your ass whopped at poker?
Nicandro's responseDream on but bring it onmade him laugh for the first time in weeks.
Powering down his laptop, he slammed it shut. His gaze once again fell on the mask. Picking it up, he stashed it in his safe and shrugged into his suit jacket.
Zeus would receive his RSVP in the morning, once he'd devised exactly how he was going to take his father down once and for all.
The internet was a scary place. But it was an invaluable tool if you wanted to hunt down a slippery son of a bitch.
Ruby Trevelli sat cross-legged on her sofa and stared at the blinking cursor awaiting her command. That she was reduced to online trawling for a solution to her problem spiked equal measures of irritation and frustration through her.
She'd made it a point to avoid anything to do with social media. The one time she'd foolishly typed her name into a search engine, the sheer volume of false information she'd discovered had scared her into never trying again.
Of course, she'd also found enough about her parents to have scarred her for life if she hadn't already been scarred.
Tonight, she had no choice. Because despite thousands of pages featuring Narciso Media Corporation, every effort to speak to someone who could help her had been met with a solid stone wall. She'd already wasted a solid hour discovering that a thirty-year-old billionaire named Narciso Valentino owned NMC.
She snorted under her breath. Who on earth named their child Narciso anyway? That was like inviting bullies and snark-mongers to feast on the poor child. On the flip side, his unique name had eased her search.
Sucking in a breath, she typed in her next request: Narciso's New York hangouts. There were over two million entries. Awesome.
Either there were millions of men out there named Narciso or the man she sought was indecently popular.
Offering up a Hail Mary, she clicked the first link. And nearly gagged at the graphic burlesque images that popped up.
She closed it and sat back, fighting the rising nausea. Desperate was fast becoming her middle name but Ruby refused to accept that the answers to her woeful financial predicament would be found in a skin den.
Biting her inside lip, she exhaled and typed again: Where's Narciso Valentino tonight?
Her breath caught as the search engine fired back a quick response. The first linked the domain of a popular tabloid newspaperone she'd become rudely acquainted with when she'd received her first laptop at ten, logged on and seen her parents splashed over the home page. In the fourteen years since then, she'd avoided the tabloid, just as she avoided her parents nowadays.
Ignoring the ache in her chest, she clicked on the next link that connected to a location app.
For several seconds, she couldn't believe how easily she'd found him. She read the extensive list of celebrities who'd announced their whereabouts freely, including one attending a movie premiere right now in Times Square.
Grabbing the remote, she flipped the TV channel to the entertainment news station, and, sure enough, the movie star was flashing a million-dollar smile at his adoring fans.
She glanced back at the location next to Narciso Valentino's name.
Rigaa Cuban-Mexican nightclub in the Flatiron District in Manhattan.
Glancing at the clock above the TV, she made a quick calculation. If she hurried, she could be there in under an hour. Her heart hammered as she contemplated what she was about to do.
She despised confrontation almost as much as her parents thrived on it. But after weeks of trying to find a solution, she'd reached the end of her tether.
She'd won the NMC reality TV show and scraped together every last cent to come up with her half of the hundred-thousand-dollar capital needed to get her restaurantDolce Italiaup and running.
Any help she could've expected from Simon Whittaker, her ex-business partner and owner of twenty-five per cent of Dolce Italia, was now a thing of the past.
She clenched her fist as she recalled their last confrontation.
Finding out that the man she'd developed feelings for was married with a baby on the way had been shock enough. Simon trying to talk her into sleeping with him despite his marital status had killed any emotion she'd ever had for him.
He'd sneered at her wounded reaction to his intended infidelity. But having witnessed it up close with gut-wrenching frequency in her parents' marriage, she was well versed in its consequences.
Cutting Simon out of her life once she'd seen his true colours had been a painful but necessary decision.
Of course, without his business acumen she'd had to take full financial responsibility of Dolce Italia. Hence her search for Narciso Valentino. She needed him to stand by his company's promise. A contract was a contract
A gleaming black limo was pulling up as she rounded the corner of the block that housed the nightclub. The journey had taken an extra half-hour because of a late-running train. Wincing at the pinch of her high heels on the uneven pavestones, she hurried towards Riga's red-bricked façade.
She was navigating her way around puddles left by the recent April shower, when deep male laughter snagged her attention.
A burly bouncer held open the velvet rope cordon as two men, both over six feet tall, exited the VIP entrance in the company of two strikingly beautiful women. The first man was arresting enough to warrant a second look but it was the other man who commanded Ruby's interest.
Jet-black hair had been styled to slant over the right side of his forehead in a silky wave that flowed back to curl over his collar.
Her steps faltered as the power of his presence slammed into her, and knocked air out of her lungs. His aura sent a challenge to the world, dared it to do its worst.
Dazed, she documented his profilewinged eyebrow, beautifully sculpted cheekbone, a straight patrician nose and a curved mouth that promised decadent pleasureor what she imagined decadent pleasure looked like. But his mouth promised it and, well, this guy looked as if he could deliver on whatever sensual promises he made.
'Hey, miss. You coming in any time this century?'
The bouncer's voice distracted her, but not for long enough to completely pull her attention away. When she looked back, the man was turning away but it wasn't before Ruby caught another quick glimpse of his breathtaking profile.
Her gaze dropped lower. His dark grey shirt worn under a clearly bespoke jacket was open at the collar, allowing a glimpse of a bronzed throat and mouth-watering upper chest.
Ruby inhaled sharply and pulled her coat tighter around her as if that could stem the heat rushing like a breached dam through her.
The drop-dead gorgeous blonde smiled his way. His hand dropped from her waist to her bottom, drifted over one cheek to cup it in a bold squeeze before he helped her into the car. The first man shouted a query, and the group turned away from Ruby. Just like that, the strangely intimate and disturbing link was broken.
Her insides sagged and she realised how tight a grip she'd held on herself.
Even after the limo swung into traffic, Ruby couldn't move, nor could she stem the tingling suspicion that she'd arrived too late.
The bouncer cleared his throat conspicuously. She turned. 'Can you tell me who that second guy was who just got into that limo?' she asked.
He raised one are-you-serious? eyebrow.
Ruby shook her still-dazed head and smiled at the bouncer. 'Of course you can't tell me. Bouncer-billionaire confidentiality, right?'
His slow grin gentled his intimidating stature. 'Got it in one. Now, you coming in or you just jaywalking?'
'I'm coming in.' Although the strong suspicion that she'd missed Narciso Valentino grew by the second.
'Great. Here you go.' The bouncer placed a Mayan-mask-shaped stamp on her wrist, glanced up at her, then added another stamp. 'Show it at the bar. It'll get you your first drink on the house.' He winked.
She smiled in relief as she entered the smoky interior. If her guess had been wrong and she hadn't just missed Narciso Valentino, she could nurse an expensive drink while searching him out.
She'd worked in clubs like these all through college and knew how expensive even the cheapest drinks were. Which was why she clutched an almost warm virgin Tiffany Blue an hour later as she accepted that Narciso Valentino was the man she'd seen outside.
Resigned to her fruitless journey, she downed the last of her drink and was looking for a place to set the glass down when the voices caught her attention.
'Are you sure?'
'Of course I am. Narciso will be there.'
Ruby froze, then glanced into one of the many roped-off VIP areas. Two women dripping in expensive jewellery and designer dresses that would cost her a full year's salary sat sipping champagne.
Unease at her shameless eavesdropping almost forced her away but desperation held her in place.
'How do you know? He didn't attend the last two events.' The blonde looked decidedly pouty at that outcome.
'I told you, I overheard the guy he was with this evening talking about it. They're both going this time. If I can get a job as a Petit Q hostess, this could be my chance,' her red-headed friend replied.
'What? To dress in a clown costume in the hope of catching his eye?'
'Stranger things have happened.'
'Well, hell will freeze over before I do that to hook a guy,' the blonde huffed.
Statuesque Redhead's lips pursed. 'Don't knock it till you try it. It pays extremely well. And if Narciso Valentino falls in my lap, well, let's just say I won't let that life-changing opportunity pass me by.'
'Okay, you have my attention. Give me the name of the website. And where the hell is Macau anyway?' the blonde asked.
'Umm Europe, I think?'
Ruby barely suppressed a snort. Heart thumping, she took her phone from her tiny clutch and keyed in the website address.
An hour and a half later, she sent another Hail Mary and pressed send on the online forms she'd filled out on her return home.
It might come to nothing. She could fail whatever test or interview she had to pass to get this gig. Heck, after discovering that she was applying to hostess for Q Virtus, one of the world's most exclusive and secretive private clubs, she wondered if she didn't need her head examined. She could be wasting money and precious time chasing an elusive man. But she had to try. Each day she waited was another day her goal slipped from her fingers.
The alternativebowing to the pressure from her mother to join the family businesswas unthinkable. At best she would once again become the pawn her parents used to antagonise each other. At worst, they would try and drag her down into their celebrity-hungry lifestyle.
They'd made her childhood a living hell. And she only had to pass a billboard in New York City to see they were still making each other's lives just as miserable but taking pleasure in documenting the whole thing for the world to feast on.
The Ricardo & Paloma Trevelli Show was prime-time viewing. The fly-on-the-wall documentary had been running for as long as Ruby could remember.
When she was growing up, her daily routine had included at least two sets of camera crews documenting her every move along with her parents'.
TV crews had become extended family members. For a very short time when it'd made her the most popular girl at school, she'd told herself she was okay with it.
Until her father's affairs began. His very public admission of infidelity when she was nine years old had made ratings soar. Her mother publicly admitting her heartbreak had made worldwide news. Almost overnight, the TV show had been syndicated worldwide and brought her parents even more notoriety.