It was dusk on a warm June day, as the enormous motor yacht Princess Marina lay at anchor off the coast of Antibes in the Mediterranean, not far from the famous Hôtel du Cap. The five-hundred-foot yacht was in plain sight for all to see, as deckhands of the seventy-five-person crew swabbed down her decks, and washed the saltwater off her as they did every evening. At least a dozen of them were hosing her down. Casual observers could get a sense of just how huge she was when they noticed how tiny the deckhands looked from the distance. You could see lights shining brightly within her, and everyone familiar with that part of the coast knew which boat she was and who owned her, although there were several nearly as large at anchor nearby. The giant superyachts were too large to dock in port, except for ports large enough to handle cruise ships. It was no small thing to dock a boat that size, no matter how large the crew, or how adept they were at maneuvering her.

Her owner, Vladimir Stanislas, had three more motor yachts of comparable size positioned around the world, and a three-hundred-foot sailboat he had bought from an American, which he seldom used. But Princess Marina, named for the mother who had died when he was fourteen, was the yacht that he preferred. She was an exquisite floating island of ostentation and luxury that had cost him a fortune to build. He owned one of the most famous villas on the coast as well, in St. Jean Cap-Ferrat. He had bought it from a famous movie star, but he never felt quite as safe on land, and robberies and attacks on important villas were common in the South of France. Offshore, with the crew to protect him, most of them trained in high security and antiterrorist measures, and with an arsenal of guns onboard and a specially designed missile system, he felt secure, and able to change locations rapidly at any time.

Vladimir Stanislas was acknowledged to be one of the richest men in Russia and in the world, with the monopoly of the Russian steel industry accorded him by the government almost twenty years before, due to the remarkable connections he had cultivated with key people since his teens. A great deal of money had changed hands at a crucial time, and more had been made than anyone had thought imaginable or even possible. He had heavy investments in oil now too, and in industries worldwide. The kind of money Vladimir had made and had at his disposal was difficult to conceive of. At forty-nine, he was estimated to be worth $40 or $50 billion, on the deals and investments that were known. He was an intimate of high-up government officials all the way to the Russian president, and was known to other heads of state as well. And the fabulous yacht that shimmered like a jewel in the twilight was only a small symbol of his connections and the brilliant abilities in business that had served him well.

Vladimir was both admired and feared. What he had accomplished in nineteen years as a major player on the Russian industrial scene had won him the admiration and envy of men in business around the world. And those who knew him well and had made deals with him were aware that there was more to the story. He had a reputation for being ruthless, and never forgiving his enemies. There was a gentle side to him as well; his passion for art, his love of all things of beauty, and his knowledge of literature were more recently acquired. He preferred the company of his own kind, the friends he had were Russian, all important industrialists like him. And the women in his life had always been Russian too. Although he had a beautiful house in London, the villa in the South of France, and a spectacular apartment in Moscow, he associated mostly with his own countrymen. He was a man who always got what he wanted, and he controlled the lion’s share of Russia’s new wealth.

Despite his importance and influence, he was easy to overlook in a crowd. Preferring to go unnoticed, he was an unassuming person. Simply dressed, he came and went discreetly, as he chose. It was only when you looked into his eyes that you realized who and what he was: a man of infinite power.

The Mistress: A Novel