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“And, after all, what is a lie?
‘Tis but The truth in masquerade.”
—Don Juan, Canto XI
George Noel Gordon (Lord Byron), 1788-1824
When she was suddenly awakened by her mother, she sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes with small fists. “What is it, Mama?” she asked in a sleepy voice.
“Don’t ask questions now, Ariadne,” her mother said sternly. “We must hurry.”
“No buts, Ariadne,” Maria said, pulling the bedcovers off her daughter and shoving them aside. “You must get up now. Quickly.”
Her mother had turned on the lamp at her bedside, and in its small pool of light Ariadne could see that her mother’s eyes were red and swollen. She had been crying. “What’s wrong, Mama?” she asked worriedly. “Why are you crying?”
Her father’s voice came from out the darkness at the doorway to the tiny bedroom. “Your mama is fine, Ariadne,” he said. “Do as she says and hurry. We’re going on a trip.” She heard his footsteps as he marched back into the front room.
A trip? Ariadne wondered what he was talking about. Maybe it was for her birthday, she thought. Tomorrow she would be ten years old.
“Here,” her mother said, gesturing to Sunday clothes she placed on the bed. “Put these on.”
Ariadne pulled off her nightgown and dutifully began dressing, watching as her mother opened the drawers in the old pine chest and began emptying their contents into a small piece of luggage. Sweaters, shirts, underwear, socks—all of Ariadne’s clothing in the drawers—went into the suitcase. Before she had tied the laces of her sneakers, her mother had taken the few things hanging in the battered armoire and placed them atop the clothing that already nearly filled the suitcase. Flipping the top down, she struggled with the zipper but finally managed to bring it all the way around.
When she was finished, she sat down on the bed and turned to Ariadne. In her hand was a long black scarf. She placed it on Ariadne’s head, then wrapped its ends around her neck. It was so low on her forehead and high on her chin that it obscured everything but the child’s eyes. Putting a hand on each of her daughter’s shoulders, she gazed at Ariande with an anguished expression, then slid her arms around her and hugged her tightly.
“You were a gift from God,” she said in a sorrowful voice. “You know that, and you know that we have loved you more than anything in the world, don’t you, Ariadne?”
“Yes, Mama,” the child said, shaking her head. Ariadne knew that Mama and Papa weren’t her real parents. They had told her many times that she had been given to them, but they never failed to tell her that they loved her all the more for that reason. They were unable to have children, Maria had confided, but God had given them Ariadne. About her birth parents they had always been vague.
Suddenly Maria drew back with a look of panic. She quickly unraveled Ariadne’s scarf from around her neck and felt for the gold chain that was supposed to be there. She sighed with relief when her hand grasped it, and she pulled it out from beneath the Ariadne’s sweater.
Holding it in her palm, she gazed down at it reverently. It was a Byzantine gold cross, encrusted with small rubies and blue sapphires. Looking up into her daughter’s eyes, she said, “You must never lose this, Ariadne. Promise me that.”
Ariadne shook her head. “I won’t, Mama.”
Maria quickly tucked it back beneath the child’s sweater, then arranged the scarf about her neck again. “Put your coat on.”
Ariadne shrugged into the puffy parka that lay on the bed and zipped it up.
“Let’s go,” Maria said, taking her hand and picking up the suitcase with the other.
“Where?” Ariadne asked, hurrying to keep up with her mother’s pace.
“Papa will tell you about it,” Maria replied.
In the small front room of the cottage, Thrassos sat at the well-scrubbed wooden table in the middle of the room. At this table they ate all of their meals, Ariadne did her schoolwork, and her mother sewed. The hanging lamp over the table was lit, and in the pool of light it cast on the tabletop, Ariadne saw a bottle of ouzo—the pretty one with the ballerina on it—and a small glass of the clear liquid. Her papa hadn’t put ice in it, so it hadn’t become a milky cloud. As she watched, he hoisted the glass and downed its contents in one swallow. He set the glass back down on the table with a resounding bang, then rose to his feet.
“Are you ready?” he asked, glancing at her, then quickly averting his gaze.
“She’s ready,” Maria said.
“Let’s go then,” he said. Taking the suitcase from his wife, he went to the front door and pulled it open.
Maria grabbed Ariadne and hugged her tightly. “I love you,” she said, tears beginning to flow from her eyes. “Remember that, Ariadne. I love you. I love you more than anything in the world.”
Ariadne found her mother’s tears disturbing, but before she could ask her why she was crying or offer her mama consolation, Thrassos said, “Come on, Ariadne. We must hurry. Someone is waiting for us.”
Her mother released her and pushed Ariadne toward the doorway, but Maria remained standing where she was, unwilling to take another step in that direction.
Thrassos took his daughter’s hand and, without a backward glance toward his wife, led Ariadne out the doorway, slamming the door shut behind him.
The small walled-in yard in front of the cottage was lit by an old-fashioned lantern next to the door, and Ariadne saw that the ancient, gnarled fig tree cast eerie shadows on the wall. They quickly crossed the yard toward the gap in the wall that led out to a stony dirt path. The track, carved out over the years by donkeys, served as the only way to and from their remote cottage.
“Where are we going, Papa?” Ariadne asked again. But before Thrassos could answer, she heard a weird, frightening sound like nothing she’d ever heard before. It was coming from the top of the nearby hill. As her father hurriedly pulled her along beside him, steadily going uphill, the sound became louder and louder. Rounding a bend in the path, Ariadne saw that all the scrub and the wild sage and thyme were being blown nearly flat against the rocky ground by a powerful downwind.
She stopped short, pulling on her father’s hand. “What is it, Papa?” she asked, her eyes wide with fear.
“A helicopter, Ariadne,” he said. “We’re going for a ride on it. It’ll be fun. Now, come on.”
She had little idea what a helicopter was, but she trusted her father. Ariadne let herself be guided on up the hill toward the awful sound and wind. Near the top, she saw the scary machine, lit up by the powerful lights mounted on its exterior. It looked like a giant insect to Ariadne, and she clasped her father’s hand in fear. The blades that turned above it were terrifying. She didn’t want to go any farther. When she stopped, though, he ignored her protest, jerking her after him.
“There’s no time to waste, Ariadne,” he said in a no nonsense voice.
When they drew near the helicopter, the dust thrown up by the rotors made a cloud around them. Thrassos bent down and hugged Ariadne close. “Cover your face with your hands,” he yelled over the sound, “and stay next to me. We’re going aboard now.”
“I’m scared, Papa,” she cried.
“There’s nothing to be scared of if you stay next to me, Ariadne,” he said. “We will hurry.” He put an arm over her shoulders and propelled her alongside him, ducking his head. When they reached the steps, he rushed her up them and into the chopper. The two men sitting at the controls turned to look at them.
“Stash the suitcase in the net,” the captain yelled, pointing aft, behind the two passenger seats, “then buckle yourselves in.” The co-pilot got out of his seat and pressed a button next to the cabin door opening. The steps automatically retracted into an upright position, bringing the cabin door with them.
“Sit,” Thrassos said to Ariadne, and she slid into one of the small, upholstered seats. He quickly secured the suitcase in the net that was attached to the cabin’s fuselage before sitting next to her. “Here,” he said, grasping both ends of her seatbelt, “be still while I tighten this.” After he had secured her seatbelt, he put on his own.
“Ready?” asked the captain.
The captain gave a thumbs-up signal and turned back to the controls. “We’re taking off,” he called.
Thrassos took Ariadne’s hand and held it tightly. “This will be fun, Ariadne,” he said, trying to reassure her.
“Where are we going, Papa?” she asked again.
“You’ll see,” he responded, smiling. “It’s a surprise.”
The helicopter slowly lifted into the air, and Ariadne gasped as it abruptly pitched forward. Her father put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
When they were cruising at a steady speed, Ariadne ventured a look out the porthole next to her. At first she saw nothing but blackness, but in the distance she soon noticed small clumps of lights twinkling on various islands. Occasionally, larger areas of light indicated populous villages or towns.
They had been airborne for less than thirty minutes when she felt her eyes growing weary. The excitement of being wakened in the middle of the night and the ride in the helicopter proved exhausting. Ariadne fell into a deep sleep, her head against her father’s chest.
When the ride was over, her father shook her awake. The helicopter was descending onto a concrete runway. She hadn’t seen the enormous expanse of lights that illuminated Athens, a city of four million people. A big fuel trunk and another aircraft were parked nearby, and in the distance she could see huge metal buildings of some kind.
After the pilot cut the engines, he turned in his seat to face them. “You can unbuckle now.”
Thrassos removed Ariadne’s seatbelt as the co-pilot unlocked the cabin door. He stood back while Thrassos retrieved Ariadne’s suitcase, then led her down the lowered steps.
“We’ll be waiting,” the captain called to him.
Thrassos led Ariadne toward the small jet a hundred feet away. She gazed at him in alarm, suddenly fully awake. “What now, Papa?”
“Another short ride,” he replied. “A really nice one.”
They reached the sleek Gulfstream V, and he guided her up the steps. His pace slowed as they neared the top. Once inside the jet, he set her suitcase down.
Ariadne gazed about the interior and was surprised to see that, in contrast to the helicopter, it was luxuriously appointed, with leather seats and thick carpeting. A man rose to his feet from one of the large seats and shook her father’s hand. The stranger was dressed in an expensive-looking suit and a silk tie. He shoes shone with polish, and his hair was carefully cut. He smiled down at her, exhibiting perfect white teeth.
“You must be Ariadne?” he said in a mellifluous voice.
Ariadne looked up at him but didn’t speak. His dark eyes gleamed frighteningly.
“I am Nikos,” the man said. He extended a hand, but the child didn’t take it. She suddenly clutched her father’s arm with both hands.
“This is Ariadne,” her father said. He bent down and kissed her. “I’m going to leave now,” he said, “but you will have a very good time on this trip, Ariadne.”
“Where are you going, Papa?” she asked anxiously.
“I’m going back to your mama,” he said, “but you are going on an exciting trip. You must be a very good girl.”
“But why?” she asked, panicked. “Aren’t you coming, Papa?”
“Not on this one,” he replied. “But it will be wonderful.” Her father hugged her tightly and kissed her.
“I-I must g-go now.” He relinquished his hold on her and gazed at the man with a pleading look that Ariadne had never seen before. “Please take good care of her.”
“No need to worry,” the man replied.
Ariadne lunged for her father, but he stepped out of reach. The other man grabbed her shoulder. “Papa?” she cried. “No, no! Papa!”
Her father hurried out to the cabin door and then descended the steps quickly.
“Papa!” she cried after him. “Papa!“ But he never turned around. In a few moments he had retreated to the helicopter that had brought them.
“Here, here, Ariadne,” Nikos said. “Come and sit down.”
Ariadne didn’t move but stared up at him suspiciously. “No,” she cried, her voice trembling with fear.
The man’s dark eyes flashed with madness, and he clutched her arm in a viselike grip. He shoved her into a seat, slamming her against its back.
“Papa!“ she wailed, tears running down her cheeks. “Papa!“
The landscape was Dantesque in this part of Belarus. Smokestacks belched poisonous black clouds into the sky night and day, coating everything as far as the eye could see with a filthy residue. Animals had long since fled the area, having learned not to venture anywhere near the perimeter of the steel mill. What little vegetation that remained was blackened and dead, resembling nothing so much as Gorey’s darkest wintry scenes. Over twenty thousand employees of the plant kept its outdated blast furnaces operating, and although they hated the conditions, they had to put food on the table. People joined in long lines to get work at the Belarus division of PPHL, Papadaki Private Holdings, Limited.
The management complained to European headquarters in London, but their complaints fell on deaf ears. Thus, the fatal explosion that occurred came as no surprise. Sixty-two workers were killed in the blast, many of them incinerated to ash. Several hundred others were injured. Emergency crews swarmed to the plant to fight the fire caused by the explosion and cart off the dead and wounded.
“Let us in!” the crowd gathered outside screamed. Word had spread fast among the nearby town, and terrified relatives began to assemble at the high chain-link fencing that enclosed the steel mill. They shouted and begged with the armed gatekeepers to let them in. They wanted to know if husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons had been injured. But they were not allowed in, nor were they given any information concerning the explosion, the fatalities or the wounded.
They began to protest, led by Anna Portnova, whose husband and son both worked at the steel mill. In desperation she attacked one of the guards with her fists, pounding his chest with all her might. In another moment the butt of his rifle slammed against her head. She was knocked to the ground unconscious, and blood began to stream from the wound at her temple.
The angry crowd was cowed by the guard’s brutality, but they didn’t disperse. A few carried Anna Portnova away in search of medical assistance, while the others kept up their chants, determined to get satisfaction of some sort from the company that ruled their lives. When the gates were opened and ambulances were waved inside, many of those waiting on the perimeter tried to sneak inside, but they were caught and manhandled as if they were thieves rather than distraught relatives only trying to learn the truth.
Their pleas turned to a thunderous roar when they discovered that all of the plant’s remaining furnaces were operating as usual. Just as no one was allowed in, no one was permitted to leave.
In the executive offices, Aleksandr Sokolov, the plant manager, paced the threadbare industrial carpeting in his office, waiting for someone in the London headquarters to pick up the telephone. When a secretary finally answered, Sokolov spoke to her in a rush. His heavily accented English rendered his frantic request virtually incomprehensible.
“Would you repeat that, sir?” the secretary asked. “I didn’t quite understand you.”
“This is Aleksandr Sokolov, the plant manager of PPHL in Belarus,” he reiterated, more slowly this time. “We have had an explosion at the steel mill here, and I need to speak to Oliver Burdett immediately.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the secretary said, “but Mr. Burdett is no longer with us.”
Who is this idiot? Sokolov wondered. And what does she mean? Did Burdett die? Was he fired? He knew enough English to know that the phrase was ambiguous. “What do you mean ‘he’s no longer with us’?” he asked, losing his patience. “I just spoke to him yesterday or the day before.”
These Eastern European types! Violet Byatt thought, pursing her lips. They’re all animals! This one was probably soused on vodka.
“I mean, sir,” she said in a saccharine voice, “that Mr. Burdett is no longer with PPHL. He has been replaced.” She brushed imaginary lint off the front of her pale blue twin set.
“Replaced?” Sokolov said. “You mean he’s no longer the CEO?”
“That’s precisely what I mean,” she said.
“But-but, who is his replacement?” Sokolov asked. “We have a dire situation here—a tragic situation—and we nearly have a riot on our hands. I need to speak to the CEO at once.”
“I’ll have to transfer your call,” Violet Byatt replied. “Please hold.” Let someone else deal with the drunken pig, she thought.
“Who-?” But before Aleksandr Sokolov could ask who the new CEO of PPHL was, Violet Byatt put him on hold.
Aleksandr Sokolov listened anxiously to the bleep-bleep as she transferred his call. He dabbed the sweat on his brow with a handkerchief, wondering how much longer he could hold down his job under the present conditions. He had repeatedly warned Burdett that something like this would happen, but the corporation had no interest in his problems at the distant plant in Belarus. They were milking it for every penny they could get out of it, and damn the workers.
The pristine two-hundred and sixty-five-foot megayacht, Nikoletta, had dropped anchor offshore the small but beautiful island of Barbados. Although she could have been docked at one of the piers, her owner, Nikoletta Papadakis, had been persuaded by the security detail that it was wiser to ferry guests to and from the yacht by helicopter and in its tenders and speedboats. That way the chance that a party crasher or other such undesirable would gain access to the yacht would be greatly reduced. Because of the guests, security was of paramount importance. Among them were a number of celebrities, several Europeans titles, several of the super-rich, and even some of the ordinary rich. The jewelry worn by the women alone ran into the millions of dollars, and on the wrists of the men was a king’s ransom in Patek Philippe, Breuget, and other watches of equally expensive provenance.
Nikoletta Papadakis had decided to have a pre-birthday celebration. In another week she would turn twenty-one and ascend to the leadership of Papadaki Private Holdings, Limited as stipulated in her late father’s will. She would now be the sole proprietress of one of the world’s largest privately held corporations with worldwide interests. Only a partial list of her holdings included shipping, ship-building, oil, oil refineries, mines of different kinds, various chemical companies, real estate, vast farming and livestock ranches, logging, hotels and resorts, even garment manufacturing and design. In short, there was hardly a continent or a business that PPHL didn’t have a considerable finger in.
The Caribbean, Niki had decided, was the perfect place to celebrate her ascension. It was January, after all, and her host of rich, hedonistic friends, whether European or from the States, would be seeking the sun’s solace during the dreary winter months. The South Americans she knew would think nothing of leaving their enclaves in Brazil or Argentina or their beach homes in Punta del Este to come to St. Barth’s for a party.
One hundred and fifty of them had gathered, and they had all been ferried to her luxurious yacht, where they had dined on catered caviar, lobster, foie gras, and guinea hen. Now they were dancing the night away or enjoying more clandestine activities behind locked stateroom doors, fueled by the party’s endless supply of Louis Roderer Cristal champagne or substances they’d brought themselves.
Niki was dancing to the band she’d brought in from Rio de Janeiro to play, to all appearances absorbed in her partner, but she was keeping an eye peeled for the sexiest man around. For later. She knew most of the men, of course, and had enjoyed dalliances with many of them. But being the connoisseur that she was, Niki wanted to make certain that tonight she bedded the most appealing man available.
“Don’t you love them?” said Giovanni, a handsome, tanned Italian prince who’d come from Milan for the occasion.
“Who?” she asked, giving him the full attention of her huge dark eyes.
“The band, Niki,” he said in an exasperated voice. “Have you already had that much champagne?”
“No,” she said. “In fact, I’m just getting started. Anyway, who cares? The band’s the best, Gianni,” she replied, pressing her ample breasts against him lasciviously.
“Everything you do is the best,” he replied, putting his hands on her round, firm buttocks.
Niki laughed raucously. “You’re just horny, Gianni,” she said. “You always are.”
He smiled. “Who wouldn’t be with you around, Niki?”
“Ha!” she said, poking his muscular chest with a lacquered fingernail. Gianni would do in a pinch, she thought, a tried and true lover. Yet she wanted to experience someone new tonight.
A hand lightly tapped Niki’s shoulder, and she turned to see who it was. She frowned when she saw one of the yacht’s stewards, a good-looking young blond whose name Niki couldn’t remember. “What do you want?” she asked crossly. “Can’t you see that I’m busy?”
“I’m very sorry, madam,” he said, “but you have an important telephone call from London.”
“Tell whoever it is to call back tomorrow,” she said, refocusing her attention on Gianni.
“I’m sorry, madam,” the young man persisted, “but the caller says it’s an emergency.”
Niki emitted a sigh of exasperation and reached for the cell phone he was carrying. “Give me that.”
Before the young man could hand it to her, Niki snatched it out of his hand. “Hello?” she said, flipping a long tress of pale blond hair away from her eyes. Her manicured nails were varnished in a glittery gold, a touch she’d had added to match the gold-sequined gown John Galliano at Dior had designed especially for her bash.
At the other end of the line, Aleksandr Sokolov’s surprise was shown in his voice. “Who is this?” he demanded.
“Who’s this?“ Niki fired back. “I was told this was an emergency, so whoever the hell you are, out with it. You’re interrupting a party.”
“This is Aleksandr Sokolov,” he retorted. “I am the general manager of the PPHL plant in Belarus. I was trying to reach Mr. Oliver Burdett, the CEO of PPHL, and I was transferred to this number from the London office. Mr. Burdett has been replaced, I’m told. But I see that I’ve been connected to the wrong number.”
“Nyet, Mr. Sokolov,” Niki replied, mimicking his heavy Russian accent, “you’ve got the right number. This is Nikoletta Papadaki, and I’m the new CEO of PPHL worldwide. Now what the hell do you want? I want to get back to my party.”
Aleksandr Sokolov was momentarily speechless. “You have replaced Mr. Oliver Burdett?” he carefully inquired.
“You got it, Alek. Until I find a replacement for him, you answer to me. Now hurry up. Your time’s running out.”
“We have a crisis here at the Belarus steel mill,” he said. “There has been an explosion. Sixty-two men were killed and many others injured. There are crowds at the gates-”
“Listen, Alek,” Niki said. “You’re the plant manager, right?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “I told you that.”
“Then manage,“ Niki snapped. “You’re ruining my party.”
“But nothing. Don’t ever bother me with crap like this again.” She flipped the cell phone closed. “Idiot!” she said to no one in particular.
The steward appeared at her side immediately, his hand out for the cell phone.
“What’s your name,” Niki asked, although she could clearly see it on the name tag he wore.
“Helmut, madame,” he replied. “Helmut Schneider.”
She ruffled his blond hair then tapped his cheek lightly with the palm of her hand, as if warming up for a firm slap. “Well, Helmut, don’t you ever interrupt me for something like that again or you’re out of here.”
“Yes, madam,” he said sheepishly. “I was told it was an emer-”
“Never again!” Niki said.
He nodded. “Yes, madam. Of course.”
He began backing away from her, and Niki turned back to Gianni.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
“Oh...business,” she said. “At a damned steel mill in Belarus I bought.”
“Belarus!” Gianni laughed, putting his arms around her. “How rude of them. The cretins have no manners. Bothering you with business at a time like this.” He nuzzled her neck, his lips brushing against her flesh, and slid his hands over her ass again as they began dancing again.
Niki tried to concentrate on the music, but she was too agitated by the interruption. She had to do something about it immediately. “Have you seen Adrian?”
He nodded starboard. “He’s over that way. Dancing with his sister.”
Niki looked in the direction he’d indicated and saw Adrian and Honor dancing at the edge of the crowd. They were laughing about something. “I’ve got to have a talk with him,” she said. “I’ll see you later, Gianni.”
“Aw, Niki,” he complained, reaching out to grab her.
“Later,” she repeated, already weaving her way through the throng of dancers to Adrian Single and his sister, ignoring the well-wishers who tried to engage her in conversation.
As she neared the pair, she noted how good-looking they were. Adrian, her forty-six-year-old godfather, was tall, dark, and handsome, and he was also suave and sophisticated and possessed of an acute business ability. Although he was much younger than her late father, he’d been his second-in-command and most trusted confidant and knew more about PPHL than anyone else. Honor Hurlstone, his widowed sister, was older than Adrian, but was still a beauty. When they saw Niki approach, they stopped dancing and turned to her with smiles.
“Are you having-?” Honor began.
“I need to talk to you,” Niki said, her fiery eyes on Adrian.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, letting go of Honor.
“I want you to fire the manager at the steel mill in Belarus,” she said.
“Fire him? But why?”
“I just got a telephone call from the idiot,” Niki said, arms akimbo.
“What did he want?” Adrian Single asked, gazing at her with curiosity. His spoiled godchild’s explosive nature alarmed him, and he could see that she appeared to have already had a lot to drink. Not a good sign.
“Who cares?” Niki retorted. “He’s got a lot of nerve interrupting me during a party.”
“But, Niki, he must not have known,” Honor said, reaching out to stroke her arm.
Niki jerked her arm away, and her eyes flashed with fury. “Don’t try to mother me, Honor.”
Honor Hurlstone folded her hands together, and her features became an expressionless veil, giving away none of the turmoil that she felt. Niki was a complete mystery to her. She had been a virago since birth, and now that she had taken her over her the reins of her father’s empire, Honor was dreading what effect the added power would have.
“Niki,” Adrian said, smiling as if her demand were reasonable, “you know as well as I do that the man had no idea he was interrupting your party, and he wouldn’t have called unless there was something extremely important going on. Now, what did he have to say?”
“Something about an explosion,” she replied. “I don’t really remember.”
Honor gasped. “Oh, no!”
“Jesus,” Adrian exclaimed. “Are you certain?”
Niki shrugged and plucked a glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray. “I think so, but I’m not sure.” She took a sip of the wine and gazed at him, her dark eyes taunting. “What I am sure about is that I want you to get rid of him.” She started back toward Gianni, then turned to face Adrian again. “And now!“
Watching her weave her way among the dancers, stopping to chat and trilling laughter along the way, Honor felt a knot form in her stomach. “What are you going to do?” she asked Adrian, her dark eyes searching his.
“I’m going to call Sokolov and find out what the hell’s going on first,” he said, “then take it from there.” He saw her worried expression. “Don’t fret, Honor. It’ll be okay.”
“I’m not so sure,” she replied.
He gave her arm a gentle squeeze. “I’ll be back in a second,” he said. “I need to hear myself think, so I’m going to make this call from my stateroom.”
Honor nodded. “I’ll be here.” She sat down on an upholstered banquette and picked up the glass of champagne she’d left there. Niki’s behavior concerned her greatly, and she couldn’t throw off the feeling of impending doom that Niki’s outburst had left her with. Nikos had been the only person who could ever control Niki, and even he had admitted defeat more often than victory. He’d admired his daughter’s willfulness and even encouraged it. She was much like him, he’d often said, determined to get her way no matter what. Since his death, Niki had taken advice from no one, although she would sometimes listen to Adrian. Like her father, Adrian had been a constant presence in her life, somewhat like a benevolent uncle. But Honor wondered now whether Adrian would be able to help restrain Niki’s more undesirable impulses. It was such a shame, Honor often thought, that Nikos and Larissa, his beautiful British wife, had divorced all those years ago and that Larissa had been killed in a car accident afterward. Perhaps Larissa might have had a beneficial influence on Niki, Honor idly mused, but somehow she doubted it. The girl had certainly never listened to her. On the contrary, she seemed determined to ignore every piece of advice Honor had ever tried to give her.
“Honor, darling! How are you?” A sleekly groomed and tanned woman near her age plopped down next to Honor, and they exchanged air kisses.
“Consuela,” Honor enthused, “it’s so good to see you. I didn’t know whether you’d make it or not.”
“Barely,” her friend replied. “I’m getting a little old for all this.” She waved a hand dramatically toward the dancing crowd. “You’ll never get too old,” Honor said with a laugh. “Is Luigi with you?”
Consuela shook her head. “I gave the bastard the boot.”
Consuela nodded. “I decided that if he’s going to live with me part of the year, then he’s going to have to contribute something more than his cock to the household, you know?”
Honor laughed mirthfully.
“I discovered that he’s seriously impoverished.”
“But he’s rich as Croesus,” Honor protested.
“Poverty of spirit, darling,” Consuela replied, lighting a cigarette.
Out of the corner of her eye, Honor caught a glimpse of Niki talking to Marella and Justin de Bord. She was standing between the two of them, an arm casually draped across Marella’s shoulders, her lips close to Marella’s ear as she imparted something to her old friend. But Honor also observed that Niki had a hand planted in one of Justin’s rear trouser pockets. Her fingers were obviously very busy. The image was disturbing because Honor suddenly remembered the many spiteful and unkind words Niki had for Marella—behind her back—when she’d learned that her friend was going to be married to Justin. She wouldn’t put it past Niki to try to cause trouble between the newlyweds.
“Men,” Consuela said, interrupting her thoughts, “have been the bane and glory of my existence.”
Honor laughed again. “Most of us could say the same, Consuela.”
“You never seemed to have much trouble with old Percy.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly a marriage made in heaven,” Honor replied.
Adrian emerged from out of the crowd and beckoned with a hand for Honor to join him. “Have to run,” she said to Consuela. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
She rose to her feet and went to Adrian, who led her forward. When they reached a deserted stretch of deck, he stopped and turned to her.
“Is it as bad as that, Adrian?” she asked. “You look very worried.”
“It’s worse than I thought,” he said. “There’s been an explosion at the steel mill, and a lot of people have been killed or injured.” He paused, gritting his teeth. “And as if that’s not horrible enough, there’s a revolt going on at the plant. Relatives storming the gates and so on.”
“Oh, my God,” Honor said. “Those poor people. What are you going to do?”
“I’m leaving for there immediately,” he said.
“But...do you have to do it?” she asked. “Can’t you send someone to take care of it? That’s Angelo’s territory, after all.”
He shook his head. “Angelo’s got a bad case of the flu, remember? That’s why he’s not here. Besides, I don’t want anybody else going,” he said. “The situation is too volatile. I don’t trust anybody else to handle it.”
“I understand,” she said. “You always were the best troubleshooter the company had.” She heard the yacht’s helicopter fire up its engines over the music of the band, then felt the downdraft created by the rotors.
“The helicopter’s taking me to the airport,” Adrian said. “I’ll talk you later, okay?”
She nodded her acquiescence. “Be careful,” she said.
“I will,” he replied. “I’d better hurry.”
He rushed toward the stairway that took him to the top deck, where the helicopter pad was located. Moments later, Honor watched it rise into the air, then level off and head away from the yacht into the dying light.
In the owner’s luxuriously appointed suite, Niki, with Justin’s powerful arms about her, pressed the button that automatically closed the curtains, then she pressed another one to dim the lights very low. She turned to him, and they kissed as if they were starved lovers, fueled by carnal desire, copious amounts of champagne, and a couple of lines of cocaine that Justin had provided. Stealing Justin away from Marella made this occasion a triumph. From outside, the music of the Brazilian band intruded, but they paid no attention to it. As they kissed, he pushed her toward the silk-covered bed, finally toppling her onto it.
“Just a sec,” Niki whispered, slipping out of the gold satin shoes she wore and dropped them to the floor. She scooted across the bed and lit two large candles on the built-in bedside cabinet, then pressed the button to turn the lights completely out. “That’s better, isn’t it?”
“You look good enough to eat in any light,” Justin said in his low, raspy baritone. He grinned lasciviously. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”
He kicked off his loafers, then unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall to the floor. He was wearing no underwear, and his fully engorged penis sprang out in front of him.
“Hmmm,” Niki murmured, her dark eyes bright with lust. “Quick, help me out of this damn dress.” She slid up on her knees with her back to Justin, and he unbuttoned and unzipped the dress. It slipped off her shoulders, and Niki turned to him, her breasts fully exposed. She wore no underwear either.
Justin sucked in his breath and let it out. “Whew, babe,” he said, putting a hand on each of her ample, rosy-nippled breasts and massaging them gently.
“That feels so good, Justin,” Niki moaned with pleasure. She changed positions and squirmed out of her dress, tossing it carelessly to the floor, all the while enjoying his hands on her, his fingers thrumming her nipples. She sat on the edge of the bed, looking up at him coyly, and began flicking her tongue at his penis.
Justin groaned and eased himself into her mouth, and Niki laved him with her tongue. Her nipples had grown hard, and she was getting wet between her thighs. “Whoa,” Justin gasped. “God, Niki. You’re going to make me shoot.” He pulled away from her, then lifted her under her arms, sliding her back onto the bed.
Niki spread her legs apart, anxious to feel him inside her, but Justin had other plans first. “I love that Brazilian wax job, babe,” he said, running a finger up and down between her thighs. “That’s so hot.”
Niki mewled like a kitten, excited by the feel of his finger there, and shoved herself toward it.
But Justin quickly got onto his knees and raised her legs, placing one on each of his shoulders, then buried his face in her mound. She thought she would levitate with excitement when she felt his tongue inside her, licking and probing, licking and probing.
“Oh, my God. Justin...Justin,” she moaned. “Oh, it feels so good. I can’t stand it...I’m...I’m...”
He abruptly stopped and eased her legs down onto the bed, spreading them wide. He mounted her, plunging into her with the force of a man possessed. He began driving himself in and out, in and out. All the while his mouth nuzzled her breasts, first one, then the other, his tongue licking, his teeth teasing her hard nipples.
Niki began to thrash from side to side, lost in a world of ecstatic lust. When she started contracting, she let out a cry. “Oh, God. Justin...Justin...oh, my God...I’m...” With another loud cry, she let herself go completely and began to spasm, overcome by wave after wave of breathtaking orgasm.
With a mighty thrust Justin drove himself into her and flooded her with his seed. His body tensed and jerked as he drained himself, then he fell atop her, panting, his chest heaving against hers. “Fuck, Niki,” he rasped. “That was so good.”
“I know,” she gasped, still catching her breath.
He gazed at her with eyes that glittered in the candlelight. “Was that okay?”
Niki laughed. “It was adequate,” she said, running her hands up and down his back, finally bringing them to rest on his shoulders.
She kissed him, then gazed into his eyes. “But what about Marella? Is she going to freak out?”
He stretched out on the bed, pulling Niki alongside him. “What’s Marella going to know?” He shrugged. “Besides, who cares if she does?”
“She’s going to know something’s going on if you’re here all night,” Niki said, “and if I know her, she won’t like it.”
“Yeah, she’s like a nun,” Justin said, laughing. “She doesn’t like anything, including me. So I don’t give a damn.”
Neither do I, Niki thought. Marella was always too self righteous for her taste. The only reason they’d been friends was because they’d been thrown together at the same schools and social events over the years.
He traced a finger around her nipples, then down her torso, encircling her navel, and letting it rest between her thighs. “I should have married you, babe,” he said, “but then it wouldn’t be as much fun, would it?”
“Hmmm.” Niki brushed her hand across his testicles. “I like it better this way. I’m not ready to settle down like you and Marella.”
“Marella may have settled down,” Justin said, running his fingers up and down her mound, “but I don’t have any intention of living that way. Not when somebody like you comes along.”
Niki smiled. “My sentiments exactly,” she said. “The world’s a big candy store, why have just one piece?”
Justin began licking her neck and ears, his breath hot on her skin. “And you’re the best piece of candy around, Niki,” he whispered.
And you can have all you want, she thought, feeling his engorged manhood against her thigh. The more I get, the less Marella can have.
He mounted her again. “I want you to have a night you’ll never forget,” he said as he pushed himself inside her.
“I’m sure I won’t, Justin,” she cooed, already wet with excitement. “You’re the perfect guest.”
Dear friends and readers: Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading this Sneak Preview. Sorry for being such a tease, but from this point on, you’ll have to read the book...