For over a decade Nicandro Santos, heir to a legendary diamond legacy, has lived with one unrelenting purpose: to infiltrate the ultraprestigious Q Virtus gentleman's club and bring it, and its leader, Zeus, down.
What he doesn't know is that Olympia Merisi, the daughter of his enemy, is now in charge. Olympia has her own reasons for wanting to keep Nicandro close, and she will stop at nothing to protect what's hers. But what happens when the battle lines between them blur and they enter more dangeroussensualterritory?
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They say you can't plan a hurricane.
Nicandro Carvalho could. He could wreak havoc with a smile. And after ten years of planning and months of whipping up a storm he was finally ready to unleash chaos.
Zeus. I am coming for you and I will annihilate your world. As you destroyed mine.
The Barattza in Zanzibar, this weekend's ostentatious venue for the quarterly meeting of Q Virtus, was warm, and so muggy his flimsy white shirt clung to his body like a second skin and moisture thrived beneath his mask. Still, he strode ruthlessly through the crush of elite billionaires, intent on his pretty 'Petit Q'his backstage pass into Zeus's lair, in the form of a five-foot-three brunette in a haute couture red gown designed to attract and blend in equal measure.
Look but don't touch was the cardinal rule.
As if Nicandro had ever followed the rules. 'Rules are for boring fools,' as his mother would say, although her voice was now a distant echo from the past.
Numerous greetings vied for his attention and he offered a succinct nod or a quick 'good evening' and volunteered nothing more. Conversations were like firesthey tended to sputter out if he deprived them of enough air.
His purposeful stride didn't breakhadn't since he'd been Nicandro Santos, a terrified seventeen-year-old boy who'd boarded a cargo ship in Rio to hide in a filthy container bound for New York. It hadn't faltered when he'd concocted a new identity to ensure anonymity from his past life, emerging as one Nicandro Carvalho, who'd sold his pride on the streets of Brooklyn and then wrenched it back by working his fingers raw on construction sites to put some semblance of a roof over his head.
Nor had it swayed when he'd bought his first property, then another, over endless harrowing years, to earn enough money to bring his grandfather from Brazil to be by his side.
An unrelenting purpose and a cut-throat determination that had rewarded him with obscene power and wealthuntil he'd been graciously accepted into the covert ranks of Q Virtus, where his sole purpose was to infiltrate and take it down from the inside.
So here he was. And this was only the beginning.
A plan over ten years in the making. Rewriting history to make the Santos Empirehis legacy of a life that had been stolen from him, along with his parentswhole once more.
Nic shut down his thoughts as mercilessly as he did everything else. Otherwise the burning ball of rage that festered and ate away at his insides like a living, breathing entity would surely explode and incinerate everything and everyone in its path.
'Hey, Nic, what's the hurry?'
Narciso's voice shattered his ferocious intent and this time he did turn, to see his friend looking dapper in a tailored tuxedo, sans jacket, leaning against the main bar, Scotch glass in hand, the top half of his face shrouded in a gold leaf mask that reminded him of a laurel wreath.
Nic felt the constricting steel band around his chest slacken as a smile played at his mouth. 'All hail, Emperor Narciso. Dios, where do they come up with these things?'
'I have no idea, but I'm certainly feeling on top of the world.'
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. 'Of course you are. How is the ball and chain?'
Narciso grinned at the blatant cynicism, his smile reaching the scalloped edge of gold.
Hideous masks. Requisite to afford them some anonymity, but they only served to aggravate Nic to the extremejust as everything about Q Virtus did.
A gentlemen's club for the elite. Prestigious. Illustrious. The most sought-after membership in the world. Run by a deceitful, murdering crook.
Ironic, he thought, that grown men, multi-billionaires, would sell their soul to be a member of Q Virtus, virtually handing their business confidences, their reputation, their respect and trust to a common criminal.
Not for much longer. Not after Nic had finished exposing the cold, hard truth and crushed Zeus beneath his almighty foot.
'She's as beautiful as ever. Come, take a spin of the wheel with me. I'd like a quiet word.'
Impatience clawed at him with steel-tipped talons, slashing his insides, but Nic resisted the compulsion to decline outright. It had been too long since he'd seen his friend and he wanted a quiet word of his own.
'Let's grab a private table,' Nic said, not wasting a moment, simply ushering Narciso towards the lavish roulette room and a private table at the back.
Within ten minutes they had drinks in hand and the full attention of a male croupier dressed in red footman's livery. 'Gentlemen, please take your bets.'
Nic tossed a five-thousand-dollar chip haphazardly at the marked numbers adorning the roulette layout and waited for Narciso to make his choice.
'Twenty thousand dollars on black seventeen,' the croupier confirmed impassively.
Nic whistled a huff of air. 'Feeling reckless without your lady present?'
'Feeling lucky. That ball and chain does that to me.'
Yep, his partner in crime was still drugged on a potent cocktail of regular sex and emotion. He just hoped the hangover was a long way off. Nic didn't relish seeing the lights go out in his eyes. Sad, but inevitable.
The wheel spun in a kaleidoscopic blur and he eased back in his seat to afford them a modicum of privacy. With time at a premium and his patience dwindling he jumped right in. If he waited for Narciso to start the conversation he might be there all night.
'Tell me something. Don't you think it's odd that we've never seen a glimpse of QV's Mr Mysterious? Not once.'
Narciso didn't waste time pretending not to know exactly who they were discussing. He simply arched one dark brow and spoke in that rich, affluent tone that had used to fell women faster than a forest fire. 'So the man likes his privacy? Don't we all?'
'There's got to be more to it than that.'
'So suspicious, Carvalho.'
The white ball plopped into black seventeen and a satisfied grunt filled the air. Typical. Served Nic right for not even caring where his chip landed, but right now he had more important thoughts swirling around the vast whirlpool of his mind in ever-narrowing circles. Always leading back to the same thing. Zeus.
'Maybe he's not fit for polite society,' Narciso suggested. 'Ever thought of that? Rumour has it the man is associated with the Greek mafia. Maybe he's scarred with a dozen bullet holes. Maybe he's mute. Maybe he's shy. Over the last few monthssince the last meeting, in factthe rumour mill has churned up all kinds of ludicrous tales.'
Oh, he'd heard the rumours. Of course he had. He'd started most of them.
'Doesn't it bother you that Q Virtus could be dirty?' he asked, his voice all innocence with the required edge of concern. 'It obviously bothers some. There are a few members missing this weekend.'
Amazing what a few 'have you heard?' whispers in the right ears could achieve. Doubt was a powerful thingdestructive, flammableand Nic had lit the torch with a flourish, sat back and watched it spread like wildfire.
Narciso shrugged, as if the thought of being a member of a club that was morally corrupt was water sluicing off a duck's back.
'The club might've had shady beginnings, but even my father and his cronies say the place is clean as a whistle now. You and I personally know several members, and all of them have made billions from mutually beneficial business deals, so I doubt any of it is true. Rumours are generally fairy stories born from petty jealousy or spoken from the mouths of people who have an ulterior motive.'
Very true, that. But the fact that Nic had numerous ulterior motives was something he kept to himself.
' Still, I want to meet him.' What he wanted, he realised, was back-up if something went wrong tonight. If he conveniently disappeared he wanted Narciso to know where he was headed.
'Why? What could you possibly want with Zeus?'
To bring his world crumbling down around his ears. To make him suffer as his parents hadas he had and as his grandfather had.
That old man, whom he loved so dearly, was the only family he had left. The man who'd harangued and railed at him to stand tall, who had propped him up as he'd learned how to walk again when Nic would rather have died in the same bloodbath as his parents.
'Is there something you want to tell me, Nic?'
Yes. The shock of it made him recoil, push back in his seat until he could feel the knotted gold silk poke through his shirt and agitate his skin. Problem being he didn't want Narciso dragged into the epicentre of a storm of which he was the creator. 'Not particularly.'
Mouth pursed, his friend nodded grudgingly. 'And how do you intend to meet the mysterious, reclusive, notorious Zeus?'
Nic tossed back another mouthful of vodka as his gaze flickered to the Petit Q he'd been wooing since he'd arrived the night before. There she was, standing near the doors, unobtrusive as always, yet only a hand-motion away. All it had taken was one look into her heavy-lashed slumberous gaze and he'd thought, Piece of cake.
One romantic midnight stroll along the beach and he'd had a thumbprint lifted from her champagne flute. One lingering caress of his hand round her waist and he'd slipped the high-security access card from the folds of her red sheath. What remained was one promise of seduction in her suite that he'd fail to keep and would ensure she was gone from his side.
Narciso followed his line of sight and huffed out a breath. 'Should've known a woman would be involved. I like your style, Carvalho, even if I do think that vodka you drink has pickled your brain.'
Nic laughed, riding high on the narcotic mix of anticipation and exhilaration lacing his veins. That was until he looked into his friend's eyes and the mirth died in his throat.
What would Narciso and their buddy Ryzard think of him when Nic whipped the Q Virtus rug from beneath their feet? When he lost them the chance of schmoozing with the world's most powerful men, creating contacts and thriving on the deals that cultivated their already vast wealth. They would understand, wouldn't they? Narciso was the closest thing to a best friend he'd ever had and Ryzard was a good man. Surely he was doing them a favour of sortshe knew what Zeus was capable of; they hadn't a clue.
'Speaking of rumours,' Narciso murmured, in a tone that made Nic's guts twist into an apprehensive knot. 'I hear Goldsmith made you an offer.'
He practically choked on his vodka. 'How do you know that?'
Narciso looked at him as if he'd sprouted a second head. 'Do you honestly think Goldsmith could keep the possibility of the mighty Nicandro Carvalho, an unequalled dominant force in real estate, becoming his son-in-law a secret for one second? He told my father. Who told me. And I told him that Goldsmith is delusional.'
Nic checked an impatient sigh. This was the last thing he wanted to discuss. Except his silence pulled the air taut, pinching Narciso's brow and turning his smart mouth into a scowl.
'Do not tell me you are seriously considering marrying Eloisa Goldsmith.'
No. Maybe. 'I am considering it, yes.' 'You've got to be joking, Nic!'
'Keep your voice down! Just because you've been blinded by good sex and emotionah, sorryI mean to say just because you've found everlasting bliss,' he muttered, with no small amount of sarcasm, 'it doesn't mean I want to sign my own death warrant. A business marriage is perfect for me.'
'You're as jaded as I was. Heaven help you if you meet a woman strong enough to smash your kneecaps and drop you at her feet.'
'If that ever happens, my friend, I'll buy you a gold pig.'
Narciso shook his head. 'Eloisa Goldsmith. You're insane.'
'What I am is late for a rendezvous.' He downed the last of his drink as he bolted upright, the lock of his knees thrusting his chair backwards with an emphatic scrape.
'Why would you even consider it? She's a country mouseyou'll be bored within a week.'
Exactly. He could never fall in love with her and he'd have a sweet, gentle, caring woman to be the mother of his children. As to the whythere was only one reason Nic would walk down the aisle at twenty-nine years old. The final goal in his grand slam.
The business phenomenon that had taken generations to build: his great-grandfather's love affair, his avd's pride and joy, the legacy Goldsmith would only gift to Nic along with his daughter's hand.
He wasn't enamoured of the idea, but he'd promised himself he'd consider it while he whisked up a vengeful hurricane for Zeus to flounder within. So consider it he would. If only for Avo to see Santos Diamonds back where it belonged. It was the least he could do for the old man.
'I will be content. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with pleasure.'
The pleasure of the ultimate revenge.
PRIVATE. NO ENTRY.
Blood humming with a lethal combination of exhilaration and eagerness, Nic swiped his nifty keypad over the high-access security panel. While he'd loathed those early days in New York when he'd been lured to the streets of Brooklyn, he'd met some interesting if a smidgeon degenerate characters walking on the more dangerous side of life, who had always been willing to teach him a trick or two.
Still, his heart slammed about in his chest like a pinball machine until the fingerprint recognition flashed green and he was standing in Zeus's inner sanctum.
Moroccan-style ironwork lanterns cast eerie shadows down the long corridor and painted the white stucco walls with a brassy wash. The floor was a continuation of the small intricate mosaic that ran through the hotel but here, in Zeus's lair, the colours were richerdeep amber, bronze and heavy gold, as if gilded by Midas's touch. And that touch had embellished every scrolled door handle, fingerplate and urn.
Arched double doors, elaborately carved, encompassed the entire wall at one end of the floor, and as he drew closer faint murmurs slithered beneath the gap like wisps of smoke unfurling to reach his ears. Someone having unpleasant dreams, if he guessed right. Definitely female.
Mistress? Wife? The man was reclusive and malevolent enough to hoard a harem as far as he knew.
Gingerly Nic curled his hand around the gold handle and smirked when the lever gave way under the pressure of his palm. This was just too easy.
Door closed behind him, he stifled a whistle at the vast expanse of opulence.
Ochre walls were punctuated with arched lattice screens, allowing the shimmering light of the ornate candelabra to spin from one room to another and dance over every gilt-edged surface almost provocatively. But it was the heady scent of incense that gave the atmosphere a distinctly sultry feel, heating his blood another few degrees and coaxing his eyes towards the bed.
Mosaic steps led up to a raised dais, at least eight feet square. The entire structure was shrouded by a tented canopy made with the finest gold silkthe weighty drapes closed on all four sides, with only a small gap at the bottom edge. Clearly an invitation to take a peek as far as he was concerned.
Nic slipped off his shoes by the door and stepped closer on sock-clad feet, his pulse thrumming with the devilry of being somewhere he shouldn't and half hoping, half anxious that he'd be caught.
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