THE POWER TRIP
To all my
readers across the world.
Power! Live it!
The couple on the bed had sex as if it was their final act. And for one of them it was.
Neither of them heard the door slowly open.
Neither of them observed the shadowy figure enter the room. They were too caught up in the throes of passionate love-making.
Until… one single gunshot.
And the blood flowed.
And for one of them death and orgasm happened at the exact same moment.
Life has a strange way of taking you on an unexpected trip…
This was one of those times.
The Russian billionaire, Aleksandr Kasianenko, admired his super-model girlfriend as she stepped, unabashedly naked, out of the indoor swimming pool in his luxurious Moscow mansion. Her name was Bianca, and she was known across the world.
God, she is a beautiful creature, Aleksandr thought, beautiful and sleekly feline. She moves like a panther — and in bed she is a wild tiger. I am a very fortunate man.
Bianca was of mixed race — her mother was Cuban, her father black. There was no doubt that Bianca had inherited the best of both her parents’ looks.
She’d been raised in New York, discovered at seventeen, and now at age twenty-nine was the most sought-after super-model on the planet. Tall, lean and agile, with coffee-coloured skin, fine features, full natural lips, piercing green eyes and waist-length glossy black hair, Bianca captivated both men and women. Men found her irresistibly sexy, while women admired her sense of style and raunchy humour — which she exhibited every time she appeared on the late-night talk shows.
Bianca knew how to handle herself in front of the cameras, and she certainly knew how to plug her brand. Over the years she’d created a mini-empire that included a fine jewelry line, exotic sunglasses, a stunning makeup collection for women of colour, and several best-selling scents.
Bianca had mastered the art of the sell, making a fortune doing so. Then at the age of twenty-nine she’d finally decided that rather than be a one-man-band who worked hard for her money, she was looking for a powerful man who would take care of her and parlay the money she’d earned into super-rich status.
Aleksandr Kasianenko was just such a man, for Aleksandr was not only a super-rich businessman, he was also tough and rugged with a steely reserve.
Bianca was sick of the long list of pretty boys she’d dated over the years. Movie stars, a clutch of rock stars, a half-dozen sports heroes and a politician or two. None of them had really satisfied her — in bed or out. She’d always been the dominant force in whatever relationship she’d been trapped in. The movie stars were all insecure and fixated on their public image. Rock stars were mostly into drugs and getting fucked-up, not to mention totally vain. The sports stars were publicity-crazy and never faithful. And as for the politicians — sexually incorrect. All horn and no blow.
Then, at exactly the right time, she’d met Aleksandr. And she’d fallen for his silent strength.
Only one problem.
He was married.
* * *
They’d met on Aleksandr’s home turf. She was in Moscow doing a cover shoot for Italian Vogue, and since it happened to be her twenty-ninth birthday, the flamboyant photographer, Antonio — an Italian gay man who knew absolutely everyone who was anyone in Moscow — had decided to throw her a massive party.
The party was a blast. And then she was introduced to Aleksandr.
The moment she saw him, he took her breath away with his brooding dark looks and aura of control and power. He was big and strong, and there was something magnetic about him, something incredibly masculine. One look and she was hooked.
He didn’t tell her he was married.
She didn’t ask.
An hour after their first encounter they were making fast, ferocious love on the floor in her hotel suite. Their lovemaking was animalistic in its intensity, so overpowering that they’d never made it as far as the bedroom. It was all clothes off and straight at it.
After their one night of unbridled passion they were both swept up and addicted to each other. And so began their steamy affair, an affair that had them meeting all over the world.
Now, after one year, and in spite of Aleksandr’s marital status, they were still very much together.
Aleksandr had assured Bianca that he was in the throes of divorcing his wife, but due to several massive business deals that could affect his wife’s settlement, it still had not happened. He also had children to consider. Three daughters. ‘The timing has to be right,’ he’d informed her. ‘However, it will happen, and it will happen soon. You have my word.’
Bianca believed him. He was separated from his wife, so that was a promising beginning. Still, she couldn’t help wanting more. She wanted to be Mrs Aleksandr Kasianenko, and the less time wasted the better.
In the meantime Aleksandr wished to celebrate his love’s upcoming thirtieth birthday in a big way. He’d recently taken delivery of a new luxurious 400-foot super-yacht, and to christen their maiden voyage he planned on throwing Bianca a once-in-a-lifetime special event that she would never forget. The celebrations would include inviting several of their friends on a week-long cruise to enjoy the best of everything. What could be better?
When he informed Bianca of his plan she was excited, and immediately started thinking about who they would invite on this very exclusive trip.
‘How many can your new yacht accommodate?’ she enquired.
‘Many,’ Aleksandr replied with a dry laugh. ‘But I feel we should invite only five couples.’
‘Why only five?’ Bianca asked, slightly disappointed.
‘It’s enough,’ he told her. ‘You make your list, I make mine. Then we will compare and decide who gets invited.’
Bianca grinned. ‘This is gonna be fun,’ she said, already planning her list.
‘Indeed it will,’ Aleksandr agreed.
Ashley Sherwin stared at her image in the ornate mirror above the vanity for a full ten minutes before her husband, Taye, entered their streamlined bathroom with the marble counters and fancy rock-crystal chandelier — designed by Jeromy Milton-Gold, one of London’s most sought-after interior designers.
‘Whatcha lookin’ at, toots?’ Taye asked cheerfully, taking the opportunity to lean over her shoulder and check out his own image, which was, as usual, totally fine.
‘New makeup,’ Ashley muttered sulkily, annoyed that he’d caught her, wishing she’d locked the door.
Taye had no concept of the word ‘privacy’. Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He was a super-star footballer used to stripping off and basking in all the glory (not to mention the women) that came his way. Cheap and nasty little tarts, ready and willing to chase any famous man. She hated them all.
‘Well,’ Taye said, stretching his arms above his head, ‘you look right fit, an’ sexy as hell.’
Ashley had no desire to look hot and horny; her aim was to look like an elegant fashion icon, a fashionista with style to spare. Taye simply didn’t get it. He thought he was tossing her a compliment, but as far as she was concerned it was exactly the opposite.
She sighed. After six years of marriage Taye still had no clue who the person was that she aspired to be. Didn’t he realize that she was no longer the pretty blonde, twenty-two-year-old TV presenter he’d married? She was now the mother to their six-year-old twins, Aimee and Wolf. She was older, more mature. She knew what she wanted, and it was certainly not enough to be known as Taye Sherwin’s trophy wife.
They’d had to get married because she was pregnant — never the best of ideas, but better than being a single mother. Taye was a major catch. Black and beautiful. A sports hero. A money-making machine, what with all his various endorsement deals and super-star status.
They’d met on a TV show she’d been co-hosting with Harmony Gee, a former member of the girl group Sweet. Harmony was all over Taye, but it soon became obvious to everyone that he only had eyes for Ashley.
Before long they were a staple in the UK newspapers, billed as the new celebrity couple. They were even given a nickname by the press — Tashley. It had a ring to it.
Ashley was thrilled; she revelled in the attention. For six months she’d been pushed into the background while Harmony scored most of the big interviews; however, with all her newfound PR, her bosses at the TV station were suddenly regarding her with new respect, while Harmony was staring at her with daggers in her eyes.
Then Taye had managed to impregnate her, and that was that.
Taye was a super-star in all respects. The moment he found out she was pregnant, he’d insisted that they got married. Never mind about his playboy past, Taye was all about doing the right thing. Besides, he loved Ashley. She was perfect for him — a true English peach with her widely spaced blue eyes, flawless skin, long blond hair and curvy figure.
Taye’s mother, Anais, a heavy-set Jamaican woman, was not so pleased. ‘Yo should be marryin’ one of yo own kind,’ she had complained, her accent heavy with disapproval. ‘This Ashley gal’s nothin’ but a fancy show-pony. She not gonna make yo a satis-fyin’ wife.’
‘Yo’ mama’s right, son,’ Taye’s dad had agreed. ‘Yo wanna grab yo’self an island woman — more meat on dem bones. Juicy dark meat. Delicious!’
The last time Taye’s parents had visited Jamaica was forty years ago, so Taye chose to ignore their sage advice. Instead he forged ahead with elaborate wedding plans.
Ashley’s mother, Elise — a faded blonde who worked behind the makeup counter in a department store — was torn. The good news was that Taye was rich and famous. The bad news was that he was black.
Elise tried not to think in a racist way, but unfortunately she’d been raised to regard black people as inferior beings.
Fortunately, Ashley had never harboured any hang-ups about Taye being black. He loved her more than any man ever had — in fact, he kind of worshipped her, which she didn’t mind at all. Being worshipped by a very famous man whom every other woman lusted after was quite a kick.
Their lavish marriage made headline news. So did the birth of their twins three months later. Taye bought them all a magnificent house near Hampstead Heath, and everything was well in the world, except shortly after moving into their new home, Ashley suffered a bad bout of post-partum depression, and refused to go near the twins for the first six months of their lives. This forced Taye into moving his parents and Ashley’s mother into their house, which turned out to be a big mistake. The two grandmothers soon discovered that they loathed each other — especially when Anais accused the thrice-divorced Elise of making a play for her husband, an accusation Elise hotly denied.
The Sherwin household was not a happy one. Ashley, locked up in the master bedroom refusing to come out. The twins demanding attention day and night. And the mothers-in-law at war.
Taye attempted to keep the peace, although it wasn’t easy. And since Ashley shied away from any sexual contact, he was becoming increasingly frustrated.
So it came to pass that Taye cheated. And as luck would have it, the girl he cheated with (a page three model with outrageous boobs) couldn’t wait to run to the tabloids and sell her story for a ridiculous amount of money.
The headlines were relentless:
MY ENDLESS NIGHT OF LUST WITH TAYE SHERWIN
HE’S A STAR IN BED TOO!
IS TASHLEY OVER?
Oh, the humiliation! The fury! The shock that Ashley experienced. She’d hauled herself out of hiding and confronted her husband in a simmering rage.
His excuses were weak. No sex for months. A depressed wife. Crying babies. Warring mothers-in-law. And a buxom babe throwing herself at him during an aftershave commercial he was shooting.
Taye wasn’t made of stone. He’d fallen into those giant tits like a man starved for sustenance. He’d wallowed in them. Then after wallowing, he’d screwed the random girl, immediately regretted it, and run for his life.
The newspaper story had galvanised Ashley into action. She’d hurriedly hired two maternity nurses, banished both mothers-in-law to their own homes, and set about getting herself back in shape.
Meanwhile, Taye presented her with a ten-carat diamond ring, assured her his indiscretion would never happen again, paid for the boob job she demanded, and normal life resumed.
Only it wasn’t that normal. Ashley forgave, but the problem was, she had no intention of ever forgetting.
As the twins grew, Ashley began to think about her future, and what she could do to become more than just another footballer’s wife. She’d started by informing Taye that any ads or endorsements he did in the future should include her. He’d agreed. Having rocked the boat once, he damn sure wouldn’t be doing it again. Ashley meant everything to him, and he wasn’t about to risk losing her.
So, adwise, they gradually became a team. The Taye and Ashley Show. He with the shaved head, muscled body and killer smile. She with the baby-blue eyes, lush body, amazing boobs and tumbling blond curls. They got together with the best photographers and soon created a partnership brand.
Ashley worked hard on her body, toning and tanning, losing any excess fat and gaining muscle — until she looked almost as fit as Taye, only in a womanly way.
She adored her new breasts, they gave her so much more confidence, and Taye loved them too.
Would he ever cheat again?
He’d better not, because if there was a next time, she’d leave him, take the twins and make his life pure hell.
* * *
Eighteen months previously, Ashley had decided that appearing in ads with Taye was no longer enough for her — it was time she had her own career. The twins were getting older and she’d been thinking about doing something that was all hers. Since she’d always fancied herself as an interior designer, she’d approached Jeromy Milton-Gold, the designer who’d worked on their house and asked him if she could be part of his team. Jeromy, the older boyfriend of Latin singing star, Luca Perez, was always looking for ways to up his profile, and he’d told her that it was a fabulous idea. If Taye was prepared to invest in his business, he said, they could definitely work something out.
Ashley went to Taye and asked him to put up some money.
To keep Ashley happy, he’d obliged, in spite of his business manager telling him he was nuts.
Ashley was delighted that Jeromy wanted her to work alongside him.
Before long there was a new hot show in town. The Ashley and Jeromy Show, interior designers to the stars. Both with famous partners. Both with endless ambition.
It had started out as a winning combination. Lately, things were not so good.
* * *
‘I’ve got somethin’ to show you,’ Taye said, waving a large cream envelope in the air.
‘What?’ Ashley asked, moving away from the mirror and drifting into the bedroom.
‘Wouldn’t you like t’know,’ Taye said, following her.
Taye enjoyed teasing his wife — it gave him a feeling of power. And he was holding power in his hand, for in the envelope with the embossed gold border and exquisite calligraphy was an invitation that, if he knew his wife, would positively make her come!
‘Don’t mess about,’ Ashley said, still slightly irritated.
‘Give us a kiss, then,’ Taye said, putting his arms around her from behind.
‘Not now,’ she said, wriggling out of his grasp.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Taye complained. ‘The kids are at me mum’s. Nobody’s around. It’s the perfect time.’
‘No, it’s not,’ Ashley argued. ‘We’re about to go out to dinner, and I don’t want to ruin my makeup or my hair.’
‘I’ll make it a quickie,’ Taye promised.
‘Don’t be disgusting,’ Ashley responded. ‘If we’re going to do it, then we should do it in our bed like normal people.’
Taye shook his head. Sometimes Ashley acted like a total prude. Normal people! What was that all about? Made her sound like her racist mother whom he barely tolerated.
‘I suppose a blow-job’s out the question then?’ he ventured, edging closer.
Ashley’s look of disapproval informed him that indeed it was.
Whatever had happened to the girl he’d married? Free and easy, up for all kinds of sexual adventures. They’d had sex here, there and everywhere. Now he had to practically plead to get any sex at all. It wasn’t right. He still loved her, though. She was his wife and nothing would ever change that.
‘Later?’ he asked hopefully.
‘We’ll see,’ she said. ‘Now go get changed — and hurry up. We’re meeting Jeromy. He’s off to Miami tomorrow and we can’t be late. You know how punctual he always is.’
‘Jeromy’s such a borin’ wanker. Do we have to go?’
‘Yes, Taye. In case you’ve forgotten, I work with him, so stop moaning and go and get ready.’
Since she appeared to have forgotten about the envelope, Taye decided not to show it to her until they came home. He knew it would put her in an excellent mood — that, and a couple glasses of wine, and he’d have no trouble getting a piece of what was rightfully his.
Yes, Taye knew how to handle his wife.
That was the secret.
There was never enough time in the day for Flynn Hudson to achieve all the things he wished to accomplish. As a respected, somewhat maverick, freelance journalist and writer, he was always on the move, travelling wherever the latest disaster took him. Over the last year alone he’d been in Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Japan and Afghanistan. He’d covered tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, wars.
Flynn was always front and centre of the action, reporting on events, government corruption, human rights. He was an activist who answered to no one except himself, with a website that had almost a million followers, for when Flynn wrote one of his essays, his faithful readers knew they were getting the real deal, not the fake bullshit that most news stations fed the gullible public.
Yet Flynn preferred to keep a low profile. He turned down TV interview requests and avoided being photographed, while home was a small apartment in Paris, where he lived alone.
He did have girlfriends. Several. Although none of them had ever gotten close.
Flynn Hudson was a loner. That was the way he liked it.
Born in England thirty-six years ago to an American mother and British father, he’d been educated across the world as his father was a diplomat. They’d travelled extensively, until at the age of twelve his parents were killed by a terrorist car bomb in Beirut. Miraculously he’d survived the tragedy, and he had the scars to prove it.
After the death of his parents he’d led a double life — spending half his time with his American grandparents in California, and the other half with his British kin who resided in the English countryside. He didn’t mind flying back and forth; it was an adventure.
After attending a university in the UK for a year, he’d switched to UCLA in L.A., before dropping out when he was twenty-one and setting out to roam the world.
He backpacked across Asia, mountain-climbed in Nepal, learned martial arts in China, joined the crew of a fishing vessel in Marseilles, worked as a bodyguard for a Columbian billionaire who turned out to be a drug lord, until finally at the age of twenty-five, he’d sat himself down and written a successful book about his travels.
Flynn could have been a media star, he was certainly handsome enough. Six feet two, strong and athletic, with longish dark hair, intense ice-blue eyes and a permanent stubble on his sharp jawline.
Women loved Flynn. And he loved them back, as long as they expected nothing permanent.
Once upon a time he’d made a lifetime commitment. It hadn’t turned out the way he’d expected. No more commitments for Flynn. He was done.
As an alpha male he respected women, enjoyed their company on a short-term basis, and never tried to control them. He wanted what was best for them, especially women in third-world countries who had to fight every day for their very survival. He helped out when he could, writing about the places he went to, exposing corruption, using whatever resources he could get his hands on to assist the not-so fortunate.
Money had one meaning to Flynn, and that was helping others.
* * *
The girl crawled on top of Flynn like a particularly energetic spider-monkey, all long gangly legs and arms, small breasts, cropped hair and enormous khol-outlined eyes. He thought her name was Marta, he wasn’t sure. Sometimes he felt he wasn’t sure of anything any more, not after some of the atrocities he’d witnessed. He’d recently returned from Afghanistan, where he’d watched a photographer colleague get caught in the crossfire between border guards and a car carrying two suicide bombers. The guy had had his head blown off — literally — by getting too close to the bombers simply to catch the best shot.
The image of the car blowing up was embedded in Flynn’s mind, and the headless body of his friend lying in the mud. It was a photograph he couldn’t erase.
After returning to Paris, he, who didn’t drink much, had gotten hopelessly drunk two nights in a row. Marta, or whatever her name was, happened on night two, and he wished he’d never picked her up and brought her home.
After reaching an unsatisfactory orgasm he managed to slide her off him.
‘Comment c’est fini?’ she said indignantly.
‘Not tonight,’ he mumbled. ‘Go home.’
So she did. Reluctantly.
In the morning, nursing a massive hangover, he discovered she’d taken his wallet with her.
No more drinking.
No more random sex.
It was his own fault, he should’ve known better.
Lately, things were getting on top of him. His recent visit to China, where in some places it was deemed acceptable to drown baby girls at birth. Another trip to Bosnia, attempting to give aid to women who’d been raped. And then to Pakistan, to write a story for the New York Times about an American citizen who’d been drugged by a prostitute and had one of his kidneys cut out and stolen.
Flynn needed a break.
Sorting through his mail, mostly bills, he came across a fancy envelope addressed to:
MR FLYNN HUDSON & GUEST
Extracting the invitation, he scanned it quickly.
It wasn’t his kind of thing, but then the thought occurred to him — why the hell not?
Maybe this was exactly the break he’d been looking for.
Dateline: Los Angeles
Being the girlfriend of a huge movie star did not sit well with Lori Walsh’s ego. Oh yes, in one respect it was all strawberries and cream. Her name was out there — people were exceptionally nice to her — important people. Her photo was in all the magazines, frolicking on the beach in Malibu, or walking her significant other’s two large black Labradors. She was always included in the endless red-carpet interviews at premières and award shows, hovering beside the famous one, looking like the adoring, albeit slightly awkward, girlfriend.
But why was her name out there? Why were influential and powerful people nice to her? What was it all about?
Because she was the live-in girlfriend of Cliff Baxter. The Cliff Baxter — the man with the George Clooney charm, Jack Nicholson acting talent, and irresistible good looks. Mister Movie Star. No mistake about that.
Mister — ‘I get my ass kissed every time I fart.’
Mister — ‘Everyone wants to be my friend.’
Mister — ‘Even when I’m full of shit, you’re still gonna love me.’
Lori, an actress herself — although much to her chagrin she was constantly referred to as ‘former waitress’ — had been Mister Movie Star’s girlfriend for the past year. ‘A record,’ his friends had informed her, as if she’d won some kind of amazing race. ‘You must have something special,’ his friends’ wives had whispered in her ear with slightly puzzled expressions, because in their minds surely Cliff could do better?
Yes, she had something special all right. Patience. And the knack for pretending not to know when her famous boyfriend ordered in a late-night call girl for a midnight snack in his pool-house office, or spent time on his computer watching porn.
Apparently his former girlfriends had objected. And with the objections came banishment, then after they were gone it was onto the next.
However, Lori was smarter than all of them. She was going for the prize. The ring on the finger. She was one canny girlfriend who was sticking it out.
Cliff Baxter was heading full-tilt towards fifty, and he’d never been married.
Lori was twenty-four, half his age — which was the perfect Hollywood age difference. Besides, she loved him in a kind of screwed-up way. She felt safe and protected with him — and sometimes, she even felt loved.
The truth was that she wanted to be Mrs Cliff Baxter even more than she wanted a career, and that was saying something as she’d always harboured an ambition to be the next Emma Stone. She and Emma even looked a little alike. They had the same athletic body and slightly toothy grin, although Lori considered herself to be a sexier version of the talented actress. Cliff was very into Lori’s amazing mane of red hair, although what really turned him on was her matching pubes. She’d offered to do a Brazilian for him, but he was having none of it. ‘I like a woman to be natural,’ he’d told her. ‘Enough with the shaved pussies, they’re not sexy. Keep it real, babe.’
So be it. Whatever Cliff wanted, Cliff got. It was quite a relief not to have to go through the agony of having the hair ripped from her crotch by a harassed Polish woman with a penchant for inflicting pain.
However, being just the girlfriend was risky. A year was a long time. What if Cliff got bored with her? What if he discovered the porn and the call girls were enough to keep him satisfied?
She didn’t care to think about it. She dreaded going back to being just another Hollywood starlet begging for a job. Oh no, that was not about to be her future.
To protect herself she’d made it her mission to find out all of Cliff’s dirty little secrets — facts that nobody knew about him. She was determined to discover the real Cliff Baxter, not the adored icon with the starry image and self-deprecating charm.
Lori was extremely adept at underground activities; she’d learned from her mom, Sherrine, at an early age that it was useful to dig out people’s secrets and use them to advantage. That’s how they’d gotten by after her dad had done a midnight runner. They’d survived because Sherrine had known how to manipulate people — such as their randy landlord who was cheating on his wife, the supermarket checkout clerk who was padding customers’ bills and pocketing the cash, and the cable guy who was into making money on the side.
Free rent. Free food. Free cable. They got by. While her mom juggled a series of boyfriends who also contributed to their survival.
Lori hadn’t spoken to her mom in eight years, ever since Sherrine had caught her making out with one of her transient boyfriends. At the time Lori was sixteen. Sherrine’s boyfriend was twenty-five and a total stud. And Sherrine was thirty-five and beyond pissed. She’d thrown Lori out along with the boyfriend, who’d allowed Lori to camp out at his place for a few weeks until she’d run into Stanley Abbson, an elderly gentleman who drove a Bentley and was very partial to underage girls.
Stanley Abbson was seventy-five years old, but thanks to Viagra he was still able to get it up. They’d met on the boardwalk in Venice when Lori had skateboarded into him and almost knocked him flat. He hadn’t minded at all, and after a couple of lunches he’d invited her to move into an apartment where he kept two other teenage girls. It was a decent apartment overlooking the ocean. Lori could hardly believe her luck.
Stanley — who she’d found out lived elsewhere in a large house — gave the girls a generous allowance; all he asked in return was the occasional girl-on-girl show, which was doable — until he started bringing along a few of his pervy old business acquaintances to watch and sometimes participate. That’s when Lori decided it was not the life for her, so she’d packed up and left, taking with her Stanley’s solid gold watch and the stash of cash he’d kept hidden in the apartment. The money was enough to pay six months’ rent on a rundown beach shack in Venice, where she lived for the next four years, taking acting classes, working as an extra, waitressing, doing some escort jobs that did not involve sex, and generally getting by.
Boyfriends came and went. A car salesman. A burned-out comedian. Several out-of-work actors. And a low-rent showbiz manager who offered her a career in porn, which she politely declined.
At twenty-two Lori had realized she was getting nowhere fast, so she’d decided to move to Vegas.
Because she was a pretty, fresh face, with luxuriant red hair, long legs and a winning smile, she immediately scored a job at the Cavendish Hotel as a cocktail waitress. The pay wasn’t great, but the lavish tips made up for it.
The customers loved Lori, as did the manager, for she could persuade almost anyone to order the best champagne, the most expensive cocktails, and the high-priced caviar hors d’oeuvres.
It wasn’t long before the manager promoted her to chief cocktail hostess in the VIP lounge, and that’s where she’d met Cliff. He’d come in one night pleasantly drunk, accompanied by an entourage of six, and a skinny, model-type girlfriend, who kept crawling onto his lap and tongue-kissing his ear.
Lori tried not to look impressed at the sight of such a famous man, although she remembered Sherrine taking her to see one of his movies when she was eleven, and she clearly recalled Sherrine stating at the time that Cliff Baxter was the sexiest man on two legs. Lori reckoned that even though he must be in his forties now, he still looked pretty hot.
She played it cool.
His girlfriend gave her the stink-eye.
She ignored the skank.
When Cliff and his entourage left, he slipped her a thousand-dollar cash tip.
She shoved the money down the neckline of her skimpy outfit and didn’t share with the other staff, even though she was supposed to.
He came back two weeks later, sober and alone. He sought her out and asked if she had a boyfriend. She said no, although at the time she was living with a hunky barman who worked at The Keys.
He invited her to dinner.
She said no.
He invited her to visit him in L.A.
She said no.
He invited her upstairs to his suite.
She said no.
Instinctively she’d known that Cliff Baxter could be her big break, and that to make it happen she had to play hard to get. So she’d strung him along for several months, and each time he made the Vegas trip she’d continued to play it cool. Then just when she’d sensed he was about to give up on her, she’d accepted his dinner invitation.
That night they’d ended up in his suite where she’d given him the blow-job of his dreams.
Just a blow-job. Nothing else.
Two weeks later, she was living with him in his L.A. mansion.
* * *
‘Mr Baxter. They’re ready for you on the set,’ the young Second AD called out, peering into Cliff Baxter’s trailer after knocking on the door twice.
When the star didn’t respond, she tentatively ventured inside and saw that he was asleep on the comfortable couch, snoring loudly, wearing nothing but a robe that had fallen open revealing solid tanned thighs and chocolate-coloured underwear.
The girl squinted at the sleeping movie star and wondered what she should do. She was new on the job and intimidated by being in the presence of such a big star. Fortunately, she was saved by the arrival of Enid, Cliff Baxter’s personal assistant, a fierce, older woman, clad in a no-nonsense Hillary Clinton-style pantsuit and Nurse Ratched running shoes.
‘What’s going on here?’ Enid enquired, taking in the nervous young girl and her boss’s half-exposed torso.
‘Mr Baxter is needed on the set,’ the girl said, an agitated quiver in her voice. ‘I’m supposed to tell him.’
‘Then I suggest you wake him,’ Enid said briskly, placing a large messenger bag filled with papers on the table.
‘H-how should I do that?’ the girl stammered.
‘Like this, dear,’ Enid said, leaning over and giving Cliff a vigorous shake on his shoulder.
The girl took a hurried step back as Cliff sat up. ‘What the fuck?’ he mumbled. ‘Where am I?’
‘You’re at the studio,’ Enid announced. ‘You’re wanted on set, so shift your ass.’
‘For a rehearsal, Mr Baxter,’ the girl said, bravely joining in.
‘Must’ve dozed off,’ Cliff announced with a big yawn. ‘Friend’s bachelor party last night. It ended late, had my driver bring me straight here.’
‘And how did little Miss Live-In like that?’ Enid said caustically.
‘C’mon, Enid,’ Cliff said, standing up and laughing. ‘What did Lori ever do to you? She’s a sweet kid. Why do you always have to put her down?’
Enid pulled a face, and began extracting papers and mail from her messenger bag and piling them on the table.
‘Shall I tell Mr Sterling you’re on your way?’ the young AD asked, trying to avert her eyes from Cliff’s open robe.
‘Yeah, yeah, tell Mac I’ll be there in five. And next time I’d appreciate a fifteen-minute warning. You can go get me coffee now. Black. Plenty of sugar. Have it waiting on the set.’
‘Yes, Mr Baxter.’
Cliff threw her a jaunty wink. ‘Run along, unless you’re planning to witness me bare-assed naked.’
The girl blushed, and hurriedly backed out of the trailer.
Cliff chuckled. ‘They get younger every day,’ he ruminated, shrugging off his robe. ‘And you know what, Enid? Here’s the crap part — I get older.’
‘We all do,’ Enid said crisply. ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself and for God’s sake put some clothes on. I’ve seen better packages at the post office.’
‘You can be such a mean old bag,’ Cliff said, seemingly unphased. ‘Mean and ornery. Dunno why I put up with you.’
‘Because,’ Enid answered matter-of-factly, ‘I have worked for you for almost twenty years, and I am one of the few people who can break your balls without getting fired. And speaking of balls, yours are hanging out.’
Cliff grinned. ‘Surely you know that hanging out’s my thing?’
‘If you’re not careful, your thing will be out too.’
Cliff grabbed his pants from the back of the couch, and pulled them on. ‘Don’t you wish,’ he said, still grinning.
‘No, Cliff,’ Enid said sternly. ‘I am one of the few women in this world who has no desire to see your cock, your balls, or anything else you might have to offer.’
‘Yes, dear. And I’m proud to say that I enjoy pussy almost as much as you do.’
‘She’s not pussy, she’s a predator,’ Enid said sharply. ‘Not good enough for you.’
Cliff shook his head. ‘For crissakes…’
‘Just don’t marry her, that’s all.’
‘Marry her!’ Cliff exclaimed with a throaty chuckle. ‘When did the M word raise its ugly head?’
‘You should get going,’ Enid said, folding her arms across her chest. ‘It’s unprofessional to keep people waiting.’
‘And when you have time, there are a few things I need your answers on,’ Enid added, waving an expensive-looking envelope in his face. ‘This is an invitation you might like.’
‘Not another black-tie event?’ he groaned. ‘I’ve attended enough of those to last me a lifetime. This is Award Show City. No more. I’m over it.’
‘This invite is something different,’ Enid said. ‘I’ll show you when you get back. Now it’s your turn to run along.’
‘And she talks to me as if I’m twelve,’ Cliff said, shaking his head again.
‘And sometimes he acts as if he is,’ Enid retorted.
‘I might be forced to fire you when I return,’ he threatened, reaching for a shirt and putting it on. ‘You have no respect.’
‘Later, Mr Baxter,’ she drawled sarcastically. ‘Is that enough respect for you?’
‘Fuckin’ A!’ And with another wide grin, Cliff exited his trailer.
Luca Perez stretched out on a striped lounger wearing a barely there powder-blue Speedo, his well-toned thirty-year-old body oiled to perfection, not an inch of flesh spared. On the table next to him stood a tall glass containing a Mojito. Next to his drink was a Lalique dish filled with ripe red cherries, a pile of the latest entertainment magazines, his iPhone, his platinum diamond-encrusted Chanel watch, and several crucifixes attached to thin leather straps.
Luca, his eyes covered by Dolce & Gabbana shades, was almost asleep, but not quite. He enjoyed lying there in a half-drowsy state, allowing his mind to run riot. Nothing to disturb him. No one to bother him. Just a lazy day of doing nothing except perfecting his tan. And what a beautiful day it was, with hazy sunshine, a light breeze. He’d recently returned from a demanding world tour, so life at his Miami mansion was good.
Tomorrow, his significant other, Jeromy Milton-Gold, would return from London, which meant goodbye peace and quiet. Jeromy was a social animal. He always wanted to go out and be seen at leather bars and gay clubs — something Luca preferred not to do, even though they’d met at a notorious rubber fetish club in London two years ago. Meeting Jeromy had changed Luca’s life. Before Jeromy he’d been firmly closeted, living a secret gay life lest his legions of female fans found out, for Luca was a huge Latin heartthrob, a singer women worshipped and adored.
And he was married. And he had a son.
At the time.
He still had a son, Luca junior, who was now nine years old. But he was no longer married to the larger-than-life Latin superstar — Suga — the woman who’d discovered him as a teenager, nurtured his talent, married him, had his baby, and made him the star he was today.
Suga was twenty years older than Luca, yet still a voluptuous beauty with a huge following in South America. She’d accepted the fact that her husband was gay with humour and understanding. Divorce — no problem. ‘Ah, but Suga had you at your best,’ she’d joked. ‘Go do what makes you happy, Luca. My heart goes with you.’
Suga was an amazing woman, and to Luca’s delight they’d remained close friends, sharing custody of their handsome young son, who’d inherited the best of both his parents.
So, against the advice of everyone else — his agents, managers, record producers and label bosses — Luca had made the leap into gaydom. If Ricky Martin could do it and survive, why couldn’t he?
And survive he did. His fans were fiercely loyal; they adored him. Gay or straight, it didn’t matter to them. He was Luca Perez. He was their god. Now he was their gay god.
Still, Luca didn’t wish to flaunt his coming out. No threesomes or kinky goings-on in public, although once in a while he allowed Jeromy to throw a wild party at the mansion — no cameras allowed.
Jeromy Milton-Gold was not the partner people would expect Luca to choose. Jeromy was a tall, slim, very English Old Etonian, with patrician features, floppy brown hair, and a somewhat snobbish attitude. At forty-two he was twelve years older than his sun-kissed, blond-haired, buff-bodied, famous boyfriend. They made an incongruous couple; however, it seemed to work for them.
* * *
The envelope addressed to Luca Perez and Jeromy Milton-Gold looked like it contained something interesting, for it was of excellent quality, with intricate embossed gold calligraphy, and most of all it appeared tasteful and expensive.
Sitting at his David Armstrong Jones desk in his London showroom adjacent to Sloane Square, Jeromy Milton-Gold pried open the envelope with a silver letter-opener and extracted the enclosed invitation.
He read it carefully. Twice.
A satisfied smile crossed his face. This was one invitation they were not turning down.
He slid open the centre drawer of his desk, carefully placed the invitation back in its envelope, and put it next to his passport. Tomorrow he would show it to Luca and insist that they accept.
Sometimes Luca could be stubborn, only this time Jeromy refused to take no for an answer. This time it was a done deal.
Dateline: New York
The politician and his lovely wife were invited everywhere — they were one of the most popular couples in the city. He, so honest-looking and upstanding with his regular features, well-cut brown hair and an ‘I will do everything I can for my people’ attitude. She, both delicate and strong at the same time, slender, with shoulder-length honey-coppery hair, a beautiful face, and widely spaced warm brown eyes.
Her name was Sierra Kathleen Snow. His name was Hammond Patterson junior, although — much to his father’s chagrin — shortly after getting into politics he’d dropped the junior. ‘It doesn’t sound right,’ he’d muttered.
‘I’ll tell you what sounds right,’ his father had raged. ‘Using the family name and the family reputation. That’s what sounds right to me.’
Hammond Patterson junior wasn’t so sure. His father had been a Congressman for many years, and that was not the role Hammond was planning to play. Instead, after college he’d gone straight to law school, then pursued a career as an attorney, and in time he’d parlayed that career into becoming — at thirty-six — one of the youngest Senators in the house.
Representing New York as the junior Senator, he was full of ambition. He had high hopes that eventually he would become Governor of the State, then after that, possibly make a run for the White House.
Why not? He had all the right credentials. And most of all he had supreme confidence.
Hammond was an extremely driven man. Nothing was about to stop him.
Sierra, on the other hand, possessed a warmth and candour that attracted men and women alike. She was smart and compassionate with a generous soul. As far as Hammond was concerned she was the perfect political wife, an asset to have by his side at all times, which is exactly why he’d picked her.
Recently Hammond’s climb to the top had come across an unexpected stumbling block. And that stumbling block was the disturbing realization that he’d fathered a daughter in his younger years. Apparently he’d gotten some girl pregnant, and that girl had gone ahead and given birth to a daughter named Radical.
Radical had arrived at his office one day, fifteen years old and determined to meet her father.
Hammond was furious and shocked. When the girl finally got in to see him and announced that she was his daughter, he didn’t believe her. This couldn’t be happening to him. It was impossible.
But Radical produced a birth certificate with his name on it, and informed him that her mom had recently died from a drug overdose, and that she had nowhere else to go.
Two paternity tests later, Hammond was forced to admit that this strange unruly teenager with streaks of green in her dyed black hair, multiple piercings, and a snotty attitude was indeed his.
Sierra, being the kind and thoughtful person that she was, had insisted that Radical join the family.
‘We have to take her in,’ Sierra had lectured him. ‘She’s your daughter. You have no choice. Think of your public image if you don’t.’
Finally Hammond had agreed, terrified that the sudden appearance of an illegitimate teenage daughter would wreak havoc with his carefully projected image.
The public, it turned out, still loved Hammond and Sierra. They were accepting of Hammond’s youthful transgression. Sexual scandals involving politicians were nothing new, and with Sierra next to him, Hammond could do no wrong.
Radical turned out to be a nightmare. Rude and wilful, she caused trouble wherever she went. She hated her father, and he hated her right back.
Angry that he was stuck with her, Hammond soon packed her off to boarding school in Switzerland, even forcing Sierra to agree that it was for the best.
Radical went. But not without a fight.
* * *
When Hammond’s assistant, Nadia, entered his office and showed him the fancy invitation, he didn’t hesitate. Without checking with Sierra, he instructed Nadia to immediately accept.
Hammond smelled big money, major campaign contributions when the time came for him to run, for he was well aware that important connections were everything. Plus this was a fine chance for him to start planting the seeds of his unstoppable ambition.
Yes, Hammond knew a viable opportunity when it came his way. He was no fool.
* * *
Sierra Kathleen Snow was born into great privilege. Her father was the well-respected Pulitzer Prize winner Archibald Snow, an academic and renowned writer of history tomes, while her mother, Phoebee, was a true New York society beauty whose family dated back to the Founding Fathers.
Sierra had an older sister, Clare, who was married to a pediatrician and had written a series of best-selling books about parenting. Clare and her husband had three young children, and resided in Connecticut. Sierra also had a brother, Sean, who lived in Hawaii with a woman he’d picked up on the beach.
Clare was the darling of the family, while Sean was the dark side. Sierra was somewhere in the middle.
At thirty-two, Sierra was still not sure where she fitted in.
She was Archibald and Phoebee Snow’s daughter. She was Hammond Patterson’s wife. She was Clare Snow’s sister. But who was she really?
Every morning, upon waking, she asked herself that question.
Who am I today?
Am I the politician’s wife?
The dutiful daughter?
The loving supportive sister?
Who am I?
It was a question that haunted her, because she honestly didn’t know the answer.
Her illustrious parents disapproved of Hammond; although they’d never actually said it out loud, she knew that they did. When Radical had appeared on the scene, the expression on her mother’s face had said it all: we always suspected that Hammond was a rogue. Now we know for sure.
A rogue who harboured aspirations to eventually become President of America. With her by his side.
The very thought made Sierra shudder. She’d been married to Hammond for eight years and didn’t love him. She’d started off thinking that she did, but after a while she’d realized that she’d married him to get over a broken heart, and that he’d married her because of her impeccable pedigree and family connections.
Hammond was not the man he’d pretended to be.
He was a psychopath. A very clever psychopath.
To the world he presented a smiling honest face, a nice-looking man filled with empathy and caring. With his brown hair, regular features and captivating smile, he seemed like such an open book. However, Hammond’s public persona was way different in private. Sierra knew for a fact that he was a bigot, a misogynist, and hated gays. He had a cruel tongue and a nasty sadistic streak. He talked about everyone in a disparaging way, including her family, and he loathed his own father. He was forever voicing his wishes that the man would drop dead of a sudden heart attack.
At first she’d tried to dig into his psyche, discover where all this anger came from. It was a lost cause. The charming attentive man she’d married had turned into a secret monster who actually scared her, which was why she hadn’t left him.
Two years into their marriage she’d realized what a fraud he was, and she’d threatened to divorce him. Very calmly he’d informed her that if she ever left him, he’d arrange to have her entire family killed, and that he would make sure she was maimed for life.
Shocked and horrified, she’d considered going to the police. But who would believe her story? She was Sierra Patterson, wife of the up-and-coming politician, Hammond Patterson, a man who fought for everyone’s rights — including those of gays and women.
It was an impossible situation, and to make it even worse, Hammond was continually unfaithful, sleeping with any woman he could get his hands on.
When she confronted him about his indiscretions, he’d sneered at her. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ he’d said with cold indifference. ‘Fucking you is like fucking a dead fish.’
Sierra knew she should leave, but Hammond’s threats were all too real, and she simply couldn’t summon the courage to get out. What if he went through with them and actually harmed her family? She knew without a doubt that he was capable of anything.
So Sierra stayed and threw herself into helping people. She visited children’s hospitals, formed a rape prevention group, rallied for battered women, and did everything she could to take her mind off her miserable life at home.
Hammond was pleased. He’d been right about Sierra, she was the perfect politician’s wife. A beautiful and gracious woman who was also a do-gooder.
What could be better for a man on his way to the top?
Bianca reached for a towel, wrapping it around her smooth gleaming body as she moved closer to Aleksandr.
He seized a corner of the towel and roughly pulled it away from her. The towel fluttered to the ground.
‘You are so beautiful,’ he said, his voice a throaty growl as he began rubbing his thick fingers against her extended nipples. ‘Such a fine woman, and all mine.’
Bianca experienced a shiver of delight and responded accordingly. Whenever Aleksandr wanted her, she was ready.
Early on in their relationship she’d learned from Aleksandr that his wife was a sexually cold woman who’d informed him shortly after they were married that his very touch repulsed her.
Apparently his money hadn’t.
Bianca didn’t care that he was so enormously rich. She genuinely cared about the man, and the way he was able to turn her on with nothing more than a glance. His dark eyes were deeper than a glacier, she could never tell what he was thinking. His touch was strong and manly. As for his equipment — perfection. Long and thick and solid, the best she’d ever experienced. Plus he knew what to do with it — a true bonus after a series of famous men who considered erectile dysfunction totally normal.
Aleksandr pushed her to the ground and dropped his pants. He never wore underwear, something they had in common.
The cold tile against her skin made her shiver even more as she spread her long legs for her lover. Glancing up, she noticed the red light on the security camera and wondered if they were being watched or filmed.
It didn’t matter. Aleksandr controlled everything; he would never allow anyone to use her or anything bad to happen.
His solid body crushed her beneath him as he entered her. He was a big man, big and powerful. She took a deep breath, inhaling his overpowering masculine scent.
‘Oh… my… God…’ she murmured. ‘You feel so amazing, so damn hard…’
‘Only for you, my little Kotik. Only for you.’
‘Yes,’ she sighed, shifting her body to accommodate him. ‘You know, Aleksandr, you’re the only man who has ever truly satisfied me.’
He was heavy on top of her. She didn’t care, the sex was that exciting. She got off on the way he thrust himself inside her as if he was determined to own her.
Nobody had ever owned Bianca. She was a free spirit. Yet with Aleksandr she had no desire to be free. She yearned for him to possess her in every way, and possess her he did with his strong arms, full body weight and hard penis.
At the beginning of their relationship she’d tried to assert herself in the bedroom. Aleksandr was having none of it. He expected total control. Sex would take place his way or not at all.
Bianca was cool with that. She was so used to calling the shots with men, it made a refreshing change to allow someone else to be in charge.
Groaning with pleasure, she flexed her thigh muscles, causing Aleksandr to grunt his appreciation.
He made her feel like a little girl, a naughty little girl. It turned her on in a big way.
Sometimes Taye Sherwin’s mind wandered, especially when Ashley was in one of her haughty moods — a personality trait that seemed to emerge every time they had dinner with Jeromy Milton-Gold. It pained Taye to watch his wife try so hard to act as if she’d been born in Mayfair as opposed to the modest seaside city of Brighton. Ashley tried desperately to shrug off her roots, even though everyone knew she was not to the manor born. On the other hand, Taye was proud of where he came from: the Elephant and Castle. He’d done well for himself, and was happy to tell anyone and everyone about his not-so-fancy beginnings.
Taye had no clue where Jeromy Milton-Gold had originally sprung from, but he was well aware that the man was not averse to dropping names and carrying on as if he was the King of the Castle. Or Queen. Yeah, Taye thought with a wicked grin. Shouldn’t that be Queen?
‘What are you smirking at?’ Ashley asked, catching him mid-smirk.
‘Just thinkin’ about a joke one of the lads came up with today,’ Taye said, quick as a flash.
‘Do share,’ Jeromy said, tapping the side of his wine glass with long elegant fingers.
‘You wouldn’t find it funny,’ Taye retorted, wishing they could get the hell out of the pretentious restaurant and head for home where he planned on showing his wife the coveted invitation before banging her brains out. Man, he was feeling so-o-o-o randy.
‘I can’t stand jokes,’ Ashley said with a slight sniff of distaste. ‘They’re always so sexist and never funny.’
‘I must say I’m forced to agree with you,’ Jeromy drawled. ‘Un-amusing, and yet some people feel as if they’re obliged to laugh.’
‘I think people only tell jokes when they run out of conversation,’ Ashley snapped, shooting Taye a mean look. ‘It’s as if they have nothing else to say.’
‘That’ll never happen to you, toots,’ Taye retorted. ‘You’re a world-class gossip.’ He nudged Jeromy. ‘Never off the phone, this one. Always got a girl chat-chat goin’ on.’
Jeromy curled his lip, a habit he’d developed when he wasn’t quite sure what to say.
Ashley glared at her husband.
‘Luca and I are going on a simply marvellous trip,’ Jeromy said at last, filling the sudden silence.
‘That’s nice,’ Ashley said, taking out her compact and applying more lipstick. ‘Where to?’
‘Somewhere hot and exotic, I suspect,’ Jeromy said with an airy wave of his hand. ‘We’ve been invited by Aleksandr Kasianenko on the maiden voyage of his new yacht.’
Ashley’s eyes widened. ‘How fabulous,’ she sighed. ‘Lucky you.’
Taye was speechless. Dammit, Jeromy was messing with his surprise. What was he supposed to do now? Blurt out that they were invited too, and risk a tongue-lashing from Ashley, who’d be livid that he hadn’t told her.
‘I can certainly use the break,’ Jeromy said with a patronizing smile. ‘I’m expecting that you’ll keep an eye on things in the London showroom, won’t you, dear?’
Ashley bobbed her head and turned to her husband. ‘You know Aleksandr whatever his name is, don’t you?’
Taye nodded. ‘Yeah, we met a couple of times. He’s a big football fan. There’s a rumour goin’ around that he’s thinkin’ of buyin’ one of the clubs.’
‘Bianca is a dear friend of Luca’s,’ Jeromy allowed, once more sipping his wine. ‘They met years ago at a fashion show in Milan. Luca was singing for a paltry million euro, and Bianca was busy strutting her stuff. They have a history.’
‘Nice,’ Ashley said wistfully. ‘I bet it’ll be a fab trip.’
‘Yes,’ Jeromy agreed. ‘I am sure it will be.’
* * *
The couple left the restaurant and drove home in silence — an uncomfortable silence, finally broken by Taye who couldn’t stand it when Ashley slipped into one of her moods.
‘What’s up, toots?’ he said, one hand on the steering wheel, the other patting her on the knee. ‘You’ve gone all broody on me.’
‘Why do you always try to put me down in front of Jeromy?’ she complained, her cheeks flaming. ‘I’m in business with the man, and you do your best to make me look like a fool.’
‘What’re you talkin’ about?’
‘You know full well.’ And then, attempting to imitate him, she added in a mock-up of his voice — ‘“This one’s always on the phone gossiping”.’
‘I’m not makin’ it up,’ Taye said, withdrawing his hand from her knee. ‘You are always on the blower, carrying on to your mates about this an’ that.’
‘I am so not,’ she said in an uptight voice. ‘I do not gossip. And even if I did — that’s no reason for you to announce it to the world.’
‘C’mon, toots,’ he pleaded. ‘Let’s not make this into a fight.’
‘No. You come on, Taye,’ she said crossly. ‘I hate it when you disrespect me. It’s not right.’
‘I’m sorry, sunshine,’ Taye said, anxious to placate her. ‘Look — I’ve got a big surprise waitin’ for you when we get home.’
‘I’m not interested in surprises,’ she said, staring out of the window.
‘You will be in this one,’ Taye assured her.
‘You’re so annoying,’ she said irritably. ‘Why do you always have to try and change the subject?’
‘’Cause I love you, toots, you know that. An’ I can’t stand seein’ you upset.’
Ashley seized the opportunity to say something that was always lurking in the back of her mind. ‘I suppose you really loved me when you were having sex with that big-titted slag,’ she spat, her voice filled with venom.
‘Ashley,’ he said, groaning. ‘That was years ago. How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? That girl meant nothin’ to me. I’ve told you a million times.’
‘A million times isn’t enough,’ Ashley muttered, still holding onto a major grudge. ‘How would you like it if that had been me in bed with some bloke? How would that grab you?’
‘You wouldn’t do it. Anyway, I trust you.’
‘Yes,’ she snorted. ‘And I trusted you, and look where that got me.’
How had their conversation veered so off-track? Every so often, Ashley brought up the one time he’d been unfaithful, but why was she doing it tonight?
Best to stay silent and let her vent.
Which she did.
All the way home to Hampstead.
Flynn Hudson had a few things to take care of, two or three hard-hitting pieces to write, several follow-up calls, and a decision to make.
Aleksandr Kasianenko — an old friend from back in the day — had invited him on what seemed like it might be a spectacular trip. He’d been invited with a guest, and therein lay the problem. Who to bring with him? And even more importantly — did he want to bring anyone at all?
Certainly not one of his casual girlfriends who were available for light relief and nothing else, which was one thing he always made clear up front before he slept with them. Flynn did not care to have any broken hearts on his conscience. He knew what a broken heart felt like only too well. He’d experienced the pain, abandonment and downright misery that came with heartbreak, albeit a long time ago, but the feeling of loss had never really left him.
Yes. True heartbreak existed. And Flynn knew all about it, so he was always careful to warn women that if they were after anything more than a casual fling, he was not the man for them.
As he thought about who to take, one name came to mind — Xuan — an exquisite Asian, who was quite beautiful, strong-minded and conveniently more into women than men.
Xuan would definitely get a kick out of such a trip, and he would enjoy her company — he always did.
Xuan was a fellow journalist who’d escaped from a Communist regime when her parents were accused of being spies, then taken away and brutally murdered for their supposed crimes.
Xuan had arranged to get herself smuggled out of Communist China eleven years previously, and like Flynn, her special talent was writing about the injustices in a world gone crazy. They’d bumped into each other over the years in many different countries, and formed a close non-sexual friendship, a friendship which suited both of them.
Flynn knew many of her stories, how she’d been gang-raped on her way out of China, then rescued by a man who’d kept her locked up and beaten. After a devastating miscarriage, she’d made another daring escape, going months with hardly any food — begging for sustenance along the way — until eventually she’d reached Hong Kong where she’d been taken in by distant relatives.
The difficulties of trying to make a life for herself had not been easy. But Xuan was strong: she’d prevailed and finally forged a career for herself as a fearless journalist.
After mulling it over, Flynn sent her a text inviting her. Together, exploring the extraordinary lifestyles of the rich and overly privileged could be an extremely memorable experience, one from which they might both benefit.
It didn’t matter. At least it would be a welcome change from the horrors of the world they’d both seen up close.
Flynn waited for Xuan to respond. He hoped it would be a resounding yes.
* * *
In a small hotel room in Saigon, Xuan and her sometime lover, Deshi, lay on the bed fully sated, a ceiling fan whirling noisily above them. The sex had been satisfying, although not mind-blowing by any means. However, Xuan found Deshi to be an intelligent man with — even more important — interesting tidbits of information about government activity that he let slip her way. Conveniently, Deshi happened to work for the government.
Sexually Xuan preferred women, although when the occasion called for it she was not averse to bedding down with a man. Information was information, and Xuan gathered it any way she could.
Her cell phone bleeped, indicating a text. She leaned across Deshi to reach it, her small breasts grazing his chest.
Deshi took this as an indication that maybe there was more sex in his future. To his disappointment it was not to be.
Xuan read Flynn’s message. She was pleased to hear from her friend. Of all the knowledgeable and attractive men she knew, Flynn was number one. A solid guy with admirable values and an adventurous spirit.
The first time they’d run into each other, she’d told him she was bi-sexual, leaning towards the female sex. She was determined there would be no sexual tension messing up a friendship that she’d sensed could be quite precious. She was right. Sex had never interfered with their close relationship.
Now Flynn was inviting her on a trip.
With rich people. Insanely rich people, because she knew who Aleksandr Kasianenko was. Everyone knew who Aleksandr Kasianenko was — the Russian billionaire steel magnate with the famous super-model girlfriend, Bianca.
To go or not to go? She would have to think about it.
‘Anything important?’ Deshi enquired.
‘Nothing that cannot wait until later,’ Xuan said.
In a few hours she would respond. It was not something she felt obliged to make an instant decision about.
Cliff Baxter happened to be a much-loved movie star. He had his faults, but overall he was the consummate professional, very aware of the people who worked on his movies, always making sure they were well taken care of. He considered his stand-in, Bonar, a loyal friend — they’d worked together for a solid twenty-five years, ever since Cliff’s first big break in the 1987 movie Fast Times on the Fast Track, a film about a marathon runner and his dysfunctional family.
Cliff had hit pay dirt on that one. At the time he was young, virile and hot — very hot. Plus he could really act. The director had liked him and pushed him to do some great work. To his delight and surprise he’d gotten his first Oscar nomination. He hadn’t won, but what else was new?
He’d been nominated three times since then, only won once. Better than not winning at all.
Bonar was his stand-in on Fast Times on the Fast Track, and they’d remained close ever since. They were the same age, both creeping close to fifty. Only Bonar had a wife and three kids, while all Cliff had was an amazing career.
He didn’t mind. He had no desire to be trapped in an institution called marriage, a soulless place from which there was no escape unless you were prepared to part with half of your hard-earned assets.
Cliff liked knowing that basically he was a free man who could go wherever he wanted, do anything he cared to do, and that there was no one around to stop him. Only his agent and his manager could tell him what to do, and usually he didn’t listen.
Cliff considered most of his male friends totally pussy-whipped, or if not whipped, then miserable divorced fathers paying alimony and only getting to see their kids every other weekend.
He was well aware that they all envied him. They should envy him. In their eyes, he was the one living the life.
Over the years he’d had a series of live-in girlfriends, and he’d learned exactly when it was time to move them out. There was always that moment in time when they started becoming overly clingy and needy — he knew the signs only too well. Suddenly they started talking marriage, and marriage was strictly not on his agenda. It never had been.
So far, Lori had lasted longer than the others. She was a fun girl and he was quite fond of her. Plus she gave the best head ever. He often thought that she must’ve studied at the famed ‘Academy of Deep Throat’ — if there was such a place. And if there wasn’t, there should be.
The truth was, he couldn’t get enough of Lori’s expert oral skills.
Usually he counted on professionals to do the things his girlfriends baulked at, but since Lori, the midnight call-girl visits were getting fewer and fewer, and Internet porn failed to grab him.
Lori, it seemed, was up for anything.
* * *
Lori had a thing about running, and not through the staid streets of Beverly Hills. No, she liked exploring the hills, finding a hiking trail, and hitting it hard.
There were no paparazzi where she went. No spying eyes with cameras affixed to them.
Sometimes she took the dogs, sometimes she didn’t.
Today she was on her own, high up in the mountains running like a crazy woman, ear-buds and iPod in place, Drake and Pitbull keeping her well entertained.
Then it happened. She went flying over a log and hit the ground with a sharp thud.
She sat there, stunned, feeling like a fool, finally realizing that fortunately there was no one around to witness her embarrassment.
After a few moments of pure dizziness she attempted to stand. Her ankle immediately gave way and she fell back down with a yelp of pain.
Now what was she supposed to do? Call her movie-star boyfriend to rush to her rescue? He wouldn’t come — he was currently on the set filming, which meant he’d send people. One of them might tip off the paps, then she’d be trapped not looking her best. Wouldn’t want that.
Her eyes filled with tears. Why was this happening to her?
She fished out her cell phone from her shorts pocket, and just as she was about to call for help, she saw it and froze. ‘It’ was a raggedy coyote emerging slyly from the bushes, standing stock-still and staring at her with haunted red eyes.
She met the animal’s malevolent stare right on and felt fear course through her body. Recently she’d read about a pack of coyotes savaging a couple of German Shepherds. If they couldn’t defend themselves, how could she?
Then a second coyote came loping out of the bushes, and she knew for sure that she was done for.
* * *
After rehearsing his upcoming scene, Cliff returned to his trailer where Enid had made herself quite comfortable stretched out on his couch, shoes off, TV on, soap opera in full swing.
‘Make yourself at home,’ Cliff said caustically. ‘Can I get you anything? Coffee? A drink?’
Unphased, Enid sat up, slipped on her Nurse Ratched shoes and said, ‘It took you long enough. I almost fell asleep.’
‘So sorry my rehearsal kept you waiting,’ Cliff said, full of sarcasm.
‘I’ve got to get back to the office,’ Enid said, thrusting a sheaf of papers at him. ‘Sign these.’
‘What am I signing?’
‘For God’s sake, if you want me to explain I’ll be here all day. Your business manager sent them over. They’re for your recent real-estate acquisitions.’
Cliff knew he could trust Enid, she would never try to put anything past him.
‘If I sign, will you give me my couch back?’
‘My pleasure,’ Enid snorted. ‘This trailer smells like feet.’
‘You’re not supposed to speak to movie stars like that. Our feet do not stink. Besides, you’re the one who had her shoes off.’
‘Oh, please!’ Enid said, waving an invitation at Cliff. ‘What do you want me to do about this?’
Cliff took the elaborate invitation and scanned it quickly. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t miss it. Go ahead and accept.’
‘Just for you?’
‘Put your bitch back in the bag, Enid,’ he said. ‘Answer for me and Lori, she’ll get a kick out of a trip like this.’
Enid sighed. This one was lasting longer than the others. Lori must have hidden talents that only Cliff knew about.
‘Whatever pleases my lord and master.’
Cliff chuckled. ‘Get the fuck outta here before I kick your crusty old ass to the curb.’
Enid packed up her papers and left.
After a few minutes Cliff put his head outside his trailer to see who was around. Sometimes he was able to pull together a bunch of the guys and they used their downtime playing softball.
Today there was nobody around. Except… who was that approaching?
Oh shit, it was his co-star in the movie. Billy Melina, a hot young movie star with naked ambition eating away at him. A ready-to-rock stud at the top of his game. Exactly like I used to be, Cliff thought wryly.
They’d only had a few scenes together, so they were hardly friends.
Cliff watched Billy approach. He couldn’t help wondering if Billy was headed for an almost thirty-year career like his. He doubted it. Everything was different today. The paparazzi ruled. The magazines printed anything they felt like. There were no studio heads and powerful managers around to protect their clients. TMZ ran riot on any star who left the sanctuary of their home.
No. In ten years when Billy hit forty he’d be long forgotten, while Cliff would still be in the game, for he had no plans to retire. He was an up and at ’em kind of guy. Like Redford and De Niro he had no intention of ever quitting; he was in the race until the end.
‘Hey,’ Billy said, all bronzed hard body and dirty-blond surfer hair. ‘Wassup?’
‘Nothing much,’ Cliff responded. ‘You?’
‘Same old crap,’ Billy said, flexing his muscles. ‘Just tryin’ t’stay outta the rags.’
‘Yeah,’ Cliff said, thinking that Billy Melina was one handsome son of a bitch. ‘I know the feeling.’ He hesitated for a moment. Should he invite the younger actor into his trailer to shoot the shit, or should he let it go?
Let it go, his inner voice warned him. Do you really want to hear all about Billy’s divorce from the very famous Venus? Or the Vegas murder scandal the kid had been vaguely involved in?
No. He had better things to do.
‘See you on the set,’ he said, retreating back into his trailer.
‘Yeah, man,’ Billy said. ‘Later.’
Cliff hit the couch again and reached for his cell. Might as well see what Lori was up to. Maybe even invite her to visit him on set.
Yes, he’d do that, tell her about the invitation.
Little Lori was going to be so excited.
‘Aha!’ Suga exclaimed, descending on Luca like a full-blown cyclone, all mountains of blond curls, bouncy breasts and jiggling hips encased in a bright orange and green low-cut jumpsuit, with sky-high gold Louboutins on her tiny feet — the only small thing about her. ‘How’s my favorite Baby Daddy?’
Suga was an over-the-top voluptuous diva with a steamroller personality. She looked exactly like her fans would expect her to look, and they adored her for it.
Luca rolled off his sunbed and stood up, allowing his ex-wife to envelop him in her generous curves. He got a whiff of her strong signature perfume and many fond memories came flooding back. Ah yes, the day she’d discovered him and plucked him from obscurity. The day they’d first made love. And most important of all, the day he’d stood in her recording studio and cut his first single.
Suga hugged him so tightly he could barely breathe, showering him with wet jammy kisses as was her way.
Luca was glad Jeromy wasn’t around to witness his ex-wife’s display of affection. He knew it pissed Jeromy off that Suga was still such a big part of his life. Too bad. As far as Luca was concerned, it was something that would never change. He owed everything to Suga. Without her there was no way he would have risen to become the star he was today — the blond, blue-eyed Latin singing sensation that Suga had introduced to the world.
‘You’re back early,’ he remarked, gently extracting himself from her clutches. ‘Thought you weren’t due home until next week. What happened?’
Suga pulled a face. ‘My manager — he cancelled the Sao Paulo concert. The ticket sales — they were not so fantastic.’
‘Must be the economy,’ Luca said without taking a beat. ‘Ticket sales are down across the board.’
Suga patted his cheek affectionately. ‘Not for you, mi amor.’
‘For everyone,’ Luca assured her, although he suspected it wasn’t true. On his last concert tour, ticket sales had hit an all-time high.
He hated the fact that Suga’s star was starting to fade. What could be do about it?
‘Where is my other tesoro?’ Suga demanded, hands on ample hips. ‘I have to hug my little Luca junior.’
‘He’s out playing soccer with some of his friends.’
‘Too bad,’ she said, pursing her lips. ‘I must go fetch him.’
‘No way,’ Luca said, hurriedly shaking his head. ‘The kid’s nine, he’ll be embarrassed if you descend on him, you know what he’s like.’
‘Embarrassed! Ha!’ Suga snorted. ‘I am his mama. I could never embarrass my little baby.’
‘Let’s get together for dinner tonight, just the three of us,’ Luca suggested, knowing that Luca junior would be mortified if Suga turned up at his soccer game in all her glory. ‘We’ll have fun.’
‘Si?’ she said, raising an artfully pencilled eyebrow. ‘And where is Mister Stick Up His Ass?’
‘If you’re talking about Jeromy, he’s in London, back tomorrow.’
‘Ah,’ Suga sighed. ‘Me vuelves loco! You have so many beautiful boys to choose from, an’ yet you stay with someone so… dry.’
‘You need to get to know him better,’ Luca said calmly. ‘We should hang out, spend more time together.’
‘I don’t think so, mi amor,’ Suga said, shaking her curls. ‘He doesn’t like me. I don’t like him.’
‘Why can’t you two get along?’
‘Because Jeromy is not the man for you.’ A meaningful pause. ‘You will see. You will learn.’
Luca shrugged. ‘Nothing to learn. I know everything there is to know about him.’
Suga smiled before leaning over and lightly caressing her ex-husband’s package. ‘Do not waste what you have, carino. You are far too young and far too beautiful.’
Luca couldn’t help grinning. ‘You think?’
‘Ah, mi tesoro, Suga knows,’ she cooed. ‘An’ you know that Suga is always right.’
* * *
Jeromy Milton-Gold groaned as he reached orgasm. When he was done, he roughly shoved the boy’s head away from his crotch.
The boy — a sulky eighteen, if that — wondered aloud if Jeromy would now like to suck him off.
‘No,’ Jeromy snapped, as if the very thought disgusted him. ‘You can take your money and go.’
‘But I thought—’
‘Don’t think,’ Jeromy said sharply. ‘I am not paying you to think. Pick up your filthy money and get the hell out.’
‘Fucker!’ the boy muttered under his breath.
Unfortunately, Jeromy heard him. ‘What did you say?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes.
The boy grabbed his money from the table and made a run for the door.
Jeromy thought about chasing him and teaching him a lesson, then he thought, why bother? The boy might be a fighter, and the last thing he needed was to arrive in Miami with a nasty black eye.
If only he could curb his desire for random satisfaction.
No, that would be asking the impossible. Besides, after a night out with Ashley and her boring (although admittedly gorgeous) husband, surely he was entitled to some light relief?
And what Luca didn’t know…
Jeromy was excellent at burying any guilt he might feel. Besides, he’d never promised Luca that he would be faithful, and allowing some random boy he’d ordered off the Internet to give him oral was hardly being a slut. It was more like he was taking care of business in a purely uninvolved way.
Yes, that was it. No emotion. No connection. Merely a swift sexual transaction for money. In the morning he’d be on a plane to Miami, then straight back into the arms of his super-star boyfriend.
He hoped that Luca’s fat ex-wife, Suga, wasn’t around. The woman was a joke with her huge floppy breasts, loud voice and ridiculous blond curls. It was surely time that Luca disassociated himself from her.
The thought of his young partner ever having been with Suga made Jeromy physically sick. Although he tried not to think about it, there were times he couldn’t stop himself from imagining them together. Suga, rolling on top of Luca, crushing his perfect body with her outrageous tits, opening her legs for him, sucking his delicious cock. The images were unbearable.
What he couldn’t understand was why Luca encouraged the cow to still be in his life. True, they had a son together, Luca junior. But why couldn’t Luca start putting some distance between them? Suga’s Miami mansion was five minutes away from Luca’s mansion. In Jeromy’s eyes it was not a happy situation.
Jeromy had made up his mind that when they were on the Kasianenko yacht, he would insist that they sell the Miami mansion and move far away from Miss Suga Tits — the title he’d bestowed on Luca’s ex.
Ah yes, perhaps acquire a house in London’s Belgrave Square, a house that he could decorate and transform into an amazing palace for his young lover.
Jeromy gave a thin smile at the thought of how envious all his London acquaintances would be if he persuaded Luca to move to London. With his prince in tow, he could lord it over everyone. He could certainly lord it over the affluent gay brigade who’d dismissed him as an old man when he’d hit forty.
Old man indeed! Meeting up with Luca had been a lifesaver. He’d shown every one of his so-called friends that Jeromy Milton-Gold still had it.
Jeromy Milton-Gold had scored the perfect prize, and they could all go fly a kite. He had a rich famous boyfriend, a revitalized business, and he was on top of the world. So fuck ’em all.
Hammond waved the invitation in Sierra’s face as if it were a weapon. ‘We’re taking this trip,’ he said brusquely. ‘And you’d better be sure to look your best. Aleksandr Kasianenko is an extremely rich and influential man, and in case you’re too stupid to realize it, I need to have people like him on my side. Aleksandr can help us a lot.’
‘You mean he can help you,’ Sierra muttered, wishing she were somewhere else. She hadn’t wanted to visit Hammond at his office; however, he’d insisted she come, and as usual she’d complied.
She had a dull throbbing headache, which lately was becoming a daily occurrence.
‘You’re such a miserable bitch,’ Hammond snarled. ‘My God, you’re starting to look your age too. For Christ’s sake, get yourself together.’
‘Maybe you should get rid of me,’ Sierra replied with a flash of her former self. ‘Find yourself a newer model — I’m sure there’s plenty of fresh meat around to accommodate you. How about the young intern I saw in the office when I came in? She seems a likely candidate.’
‘Shut the fuck up,’ Hammond said with an icy glare. ‘You’re my wife. Try to act as if you deserve the position.’
Sierra was about to respond, when Hammond’s chief aide, Eddie March, entered the office. Eddie was the complete opposite of Hammond. A genuinely nice man, excellent at his job and full of boyish enthusiasm. Eddie was the real deal.
As soon as Eddie appeared, Hammond’s attitude changed. Suddenly he became Hammond Patterson, the smooth and charming man of the people.
‘You should run along now, darling,’ he said, turning to his wife and kissing her on the cheek. ‘I want you to buy anything it takes for you to be the most beautiful woman on our upcoming trip. Here,’ he added, fishing in his pocket and producing a black American Express card. ‘Buy whatever you deem suitable. I know your taste is impeccable.’
Sierra nodded. She was married to Jekyll and Hyde. She was married to a man of many faces.
‘That’s generous of you,’ Eddie said with an admiring chuckle. ‘If I gave my girlfriend a card like that she’d zip out of town and never come back!’
Sierra smiled politely, while thinking, I wish I could leave town and never come back. Only she knew that escaping from Hammond’s clutches was impossible. Somehow or other he’d make good on his threats — she had no doubt at all about how far he would go.
‘You look beautiful as always,’ Eddie said, smiling at Sierra. ‘Morning, noon and night. How do you do it?’
‘You’d be wise to stop flattering her,’ Hammond said with an affectionate glance at his wife. ‘Too many compliments will go straight to her head. And that’ll cost me.’
Sierra couldn’t take any more. Hammond’s Mister Nice Guy act in front of people sickened her.
‘I’d better get going,’ she said.
‘Always a pleasure,’ Eddie said.
Sierra plastered on an empty smile and exited. She’d taken two Xanax in the morning to dull the pain of her false existence. Now she needed another pill to get her through the day.
The outer offices were full of people who worked for Hammond. His supporters, his team, most of whom had helped get him elected.
She wondered what they’d think if they knew the real man who lurked beneath the façade. Would they ever find out?
No. Because Hammond was too adept at concealing his real self.
Nadia, Hammond’s main assistant, stopped her on the way out.
‘Mrs Patterson,’ she said. ‘Our newest intern is such a huge fan. Would you mind if I introduced you? It would absolutely make her day.’
‘Not at all,’ Sierra said graciously as Nadia ushered the girl over to her.
The girl was ripe and young, slightly overweight with large breasts and a toothy smile.
‘This is Skylar,’ Nadia said. ‘She’s joining the team for the summer.’
Yes, Sierra thought, exactly the way Hammond likes them, enthusiastic and naïve. He’ll soon ruin all her illusions.
‘Hello, Skylar,’ she said with a warm smile. ‘Welcome.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Patterson,’ Skylar replied, totally thrilled to be meeting the Senator’s popular wife. ‘It’s an honour to be working for Senator Patterson. I feel so lucky.’
I’m sure, Sierra thought. And will it still be an honour when he grabs your ass and asks you to go down on him? Will you fall in love with him like a legion of foolish girls before you?
‘Enjoy your summer,’ Sierra murmured. Enjoy giving the Senator head and getting nothing in return. It’s inevitable. A fact of life. Poor little girl, you’ll be powerless to resist his honest brown eyes and ready smile. Tread carefully, for he will use you and then abandon you like all the others.
She made it outside and fell into the town car waiting for her, Hammond’s black Amex card still clutched in her hand. What to do with that?
Go shopping, of course. Infuriate him by spending more money than he intended. He’d only handed her the card to look like the generous husband in front of Eddie; it was all for show.
‘Barneys,’ she said to the driver. ‘After that we’ll make a stop at Bergdorf’s.’
‘Yes, Mrs Patterson,’ the driver said, starting the car.
Sierra leaned back against the leather upholstery. What was she going to do about her life? How was she ever going to get away from Hammond?
The answer always escaped her.
The invitations were sent, and Bianca waited impatiently for the replies to come in. She’d left Moscow and Aleksandr for a Vanity Fair cover shoot in Madrid. It wasn’t the perfect situation, leaving her man by himself, but the Vanity Fair photos were to accompany a lengthy story commemorating her successful career and thirtieth birthday. Such excellent and prestigious coverage was very special.
Bianca had been a top model for almost thirteen years, ever since being discovered at the age of seventeen by a legitimate modelling agent, who’d noticed her waitressing at her parents’ deli in Queens, New York. The man had told her she had potential, then slipped her his card.
It had taken her two months to get up the courage to phone him. And when she’d set off for her initial interview, she’d asked her Latino gang-banger boyfriend to go with her. This did not please the agent, who’d insisted her boyfriend stayed in the waiting room, a move that didn’t sit well with her boyfriend at all. He’d scowled all the way back to Queens, and they’d broken up a few weeks later.
The day she did her first test shots, she’d taken her mom with her. Her mom was an attractive if slightly work-worn Cuban woman, who’d always kept secret her own ambition to be a model.
Bianca was a natural in front of the camera. Instinctively she had it down, posing this way and that, making love to the camera.
And so began her brilliant career. A career that hadn’t been without its ups and downs.
When Bianca started modelling she was young and striking, with a strong personality. It didn’t take long before she became the favourite of several top designers. This infuriated some of the older models who felt she was a pushy girl with way too much attitude for such a newcomer.
Her rise especially angered the small but tight Ethnic group of models. One in particular, Willow, did everything she could to sabotage Bianca’s photo shoots and modelling gigs. Willow was a great beauty herself, also of mixed race, and she didn’t feel there was room for the two of them. However, the more Willow tried to sabotage her, the more Bianca fought back. Eventually, when Willow realized Bianca was not going away anytime soon, they reached a truce, and after a while they became friends, even doing a cover shoot for Vogue together, posing side by side.
Along with Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Beverly Johnson, they were the most famous women of colour in the modelling world.
Bianca embraced her new life. She soon got into drugs and men and parties, sleeping with whomever she felt like, doing whatever she pleased. They were fun times which included snorting cocaine for breakfast and clubbing the night away.
It didn’t affect her work. She was a star in her own world, and she enjoyed every minute of the decadent life-style she’d so readily embraced.
Her various affairs with rich, powerful, famous and sometimes titled men were the stuff the tabloids loved. She used men for her own pleasure, and when she was bored with them, she moved on.
In her late twenties she’d gotten hooked on heroin thanks to a world-famous rock-star boyfriend, who didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. Her family and friends — including Willow — conducted an intervention, and she’d ended up in rehab for a torturous six months.
It was while she was in rehab that she’d taken a long hard look at her life and decided it was time to think about what would really make her happy. It wasn’t fame — she had that in spades. It wasn’t all about money — she was quite comfortable in that respect. It was something more. She finally desired a real relationship that didn’t take place on the front pages of the tabloids.
Yes. She needed someone who cared about Bianca the person, not the fantasy image.
Then along came Aleksandr, and it was as if she was reborn.
Ah… Aleksandr. She smiled every time she thought of him.
Aleksandr had never touched drugs and he couldn’t care less about seeing his photo in a magazine — in fact, he hated it. He preferred to stay out of the limelight, although he’d had to get used to the fact that being with Bianca meant constant attention.
Aleksandr was a real man in every way. He cared about her for her own self — not the icon she’d created.
Now he’d invited a select group of people to join him on his new luxurious state-of-the-art yacht for a trip to celebrate her upcoming birthday, and she was excited.
Of course they’d argued about who to invite, until eventually she’d given way to Aleksandr’s suggestions. He didn’t want any of what he referred to as ‘trashy people’. He insisted that they invite only the crème de la crème.
So be it. Whatever Aleksandr wanted, he got. Although she had insisted on inviting her best gay friend from way back, Latin singing sensation Luca Perez. And she’d also invited Ashley Sherwin, who’d helped decorate her London apartment.
Aleksandr hadn’t argued about Ashley, for he was a longtime admirer of her footballer husband, the very handsome Taye Sherwin.
With a slight flash of guilt Bianca remembered hooking up with Taye some time ago, long before he’d met and married Ashley. It was a one-nighter at an out-of-control party in London. She doubted if Taye would even remember, and she’d certainly never mentioned it to Ashley or Aleksandr. God forbid!
Aleksandr’s choice of guests was more sedate. They included the movie star, Cliff Baxter, and his current girlfriend. Renowned Senator Hammond Patterson and his wife, Sierra. And Flynn Hudson, a writer whom Bianca had never met, although Aleksandr spoke highly of him.
It promised to be quite a stellar group. Bianca was all set to make this one special trip to remember.
Ashley could not stop gazing at the invitation. It was so elegant and simple, yet at the same time it reeked of money and class. She couldn’t wait to tell Jeromy that they too were on the guest-list. Mr and Mrs Taye Sherwin. Jeromy had tried to one-up them as was his way, only now they had a legitimate invitation of their own.
She wished Taye had given her the invitation last night before they’d had dinner with Jeromy. For some unknown reason he’d held back, not showing it to her until they got home. Then he’d had the nerve to expect sex.
Too bad. She wasn’t in the mood.
Sometimes Taye could be too demanding when it came to sex. She’d discussed it with some of her girlfriends and to her surprise they’d all said the same thing. ‘You’re lucky he gets it up at all.’ It seemed that most men who’d been married for over five years allowed their sex-life to slip. Or at least their sex-life with their wives.
Ashley did not consider herself lucky at all. Taye’s never-ending pawing at her in bed was an irritant, one she could well do without.
Actually, Ashley did not find sex that appealing these days. It was messy and dirty, a chore she forced herself to do every so often simply to satisfy her husband. As far as she was concerned, Taye was insatiable. However, he was also a famous footballer, so she knew that if she didn’t oblige, there were plenty of women who would.
Football groupies. They were everywhere, with their shorter-than-short skirts skimming their tight little bottoms, skimpy tops, ridiculously high heels, over-the-top makeup, and a burning desire to hop into bed with one of ‘the boys’ as they referred to their prey.
Yes, Taye was one of the boys all right. He was Top Boy. The big prize.
Ashley sincerely doubted he’d cheat on her again, not after the last time. The incident with the page three girl had almost cost him his marriage, and one thing she was sure of — he adored her and the twins, and he wouldn’t risk it, for she’d warned him countless times that if he ever cheated again, they were over. Finito. Goodbye. She’d take the twins and half his money too. She meant it, oh yes, she certainly meant it.
After turning the invitation over in her hands, she decided that it must’ve cost a pretty penny to print. She wondered how many people were invited, and who they were other than Luca Perez and Jeromy.
Maybe royalty might be on the list. Kate and William. What a coup that would be, sailing the high seas with bloody royalty!
Perhaps she’d text Bianca and enquire who else was going. Or was that bad manners?
There was a reply card enclosed, stamped and ready to go. No cheesy Evite for this couple.
Bianca had landed herself a winner, and Ashley was pleased for her. They’d become vaguely friendly when she’d been involved in helping to decorate Bianca’s London penthouse a couple of years ago. They’d found that they had something in common. Bianca was famous, while Ashley was married to fame.
Sharing a few gossipy lunches, Bianca had regaled her with stories about some of the men she’d bedded. It was exciting stuff, and although Ashley hadn’t seen Bianca since the supermodel had hooked up with the Russian billionaire, she was obviously still on her radar, hence the invitation.
Ashley picked up the phone and called her mum; she had to tell someone about the invite. Besides, she didn’t want Taye’s annoying parents moving into the house while they were away. It was better that her own mother was in residence to keep an eye on the twins, even though they had a live-in nanny.
Elise was less than thrilled to hear from her. ‘You only call me when you need something,’ she whined.
So? Ashley thought. Isn’t that what mums are for?
* * *
‘Take a look at this,’ one of Taye’s fellow players said, thrusting a mobile phone at him. ‘Get a load of those knockers.’
Taye took the phone and stared longingly at the photo of a naked, extremely busty brunette, sitting in a chair facing the camera with her legs spread. She was pretty in a tarty way, but it was her tits that caught his attention. They were huge, with dark extended nipples, so very different from Ashley’s — although since she’d had the boob job, hers were pretty spectacular. He couldn’t complain.
Taye felt the rise of Mammoth (a name he’d given his penis when he was twelve) and attempted to hide his embarrassment at getting a hard-on simply from checking out some random woman’s tits.
‘Who is she?’ he muttered.
‘A fan,’ his fellow player replied. ‘Sends me a new filthy photo every week. Nice pair of bazangers, right?’
‘Better not let your wife see ’em.’
‘My wife wouldn’t give a fast shit. You’re the one who’s under the cosh.’
‘Watch it,’ Taye warned.
‘C’mon, mate,’ his teammate said with a knowing chuckle. ‘Everyone an’ their dog knows Ashley’s got you by the bo-jangles.’
‘Do me a favour an’ give it a rest,’ Taye mumbled, glaring at him.
‘Go have a wank,’ his teammate sniggered. ‘Looks like you need one.’
Mammoth was definitely on course. Taye made it into the men’s toilet, locked himself in a stall, and helped Mammoth do its thing.
Balls! This wouldn’t be happening if Ashley ever let him within ten feet of her precious pussy. She was depriving him of his conjugal rights, and that wasn’t fair. He needed sex. He craved sex, but what was a guy supposed to do when his wife’s thighs were locked together tighter than David Blaine’s handcuffs?
Fuck! It was a shitty situation.
He loved his wife, that was for sure. But did she honestly think that he was going to sit back and accept her once-a-month sex rule?
Bullshit. He was Taye Sherwin. Women lusted after him. They wrote him adoring and explicit letters, flooded his fan Facebook and Twitter, hung around outside every match hoping to get lucky. He could get laid twenty times a day if he so desired.
Things would have to change, and what better time and place to sort everything out than on the upcoming Kasianenko trip.
Yeah, it was confrontation time, and Taye was finally ready.
Xuan sent Flynn a terse text. Of course, it read. Where and when?
In ten days’ time, he texted back. Meet me in Paris, we’ll go together.
Flynn was pleased that Xuan had agreed to come with him on the trip. He found her company stimulating, and he had a feeling that Aleksandr would too. For once he had something to look forward to that didn’t involve work. It made a welcome change — he badly needed the break.
He’d first crossed paths with Aleksandr several years previously when he was in Moscow investigating a notorious criminal gang. The mastermind of the group, Boris Zukov, resided in a luxury apartment just outside Moscow with his French stripper girlfriend, who wasn’t averse to giving anonymous interviews in exchange for money to feed her secret drug habit. Flynn had a contact who put him in touch with her, and during the course of an extremely interesting and informative one-on-one, he’d discovered that apart from drugs and arms-running, there was a kidnap plot afoot to abduct one of Aleksandr Kasianenko’s three daughters for an enormous ransom. Six months previously, another rich man’s daughter had been kidnapped, and even though that ransom was paid, the child had ended up brutally murdered.
Flynn absorbed the information, and instead of going to the police, he’d done what he considered to be the right thing, and gone straight to Kasianenko. It was the smart thing to do, and it turned out to be a wise move, for the Russian oligarch had handled things in his own way and no kidnapping had taken place.
Twenty-four hours later, Boris Zukov had accidentally fallen to his death from a fourteenth-floor window in his tony apartment building.
Nobody seemed too concerned about the ‘accident’ — nobody except Boris’s younger brother, Sergei, who’d been outraged that the police had done nothing. It appeared that they didn’t care. To them, the death of Boris Zukov was a bonus. One less vicious criminal to deal with.
It occurred to Flynn that although Aleksandr was a legitimate businessman, he was also a man who knew how to take care of things in a don’t fuck with me kind of way. Flynn admired him for that.
They’d met several times over the following years, and bonded as only two strong men can. Neither wanted anything from the other, and that suited them fine.
It had been a couple of years since they’d last got together, and Flynn was looking forward to seeing Aleksandr again. He still admired the man. Ruthless but honest. An interesting mix.
He’d been surprised when he’d read about Aleksandr hooking up with the famous super-model, Bianca, since he’d been under the impression that Aleksandr was a happily married man. Apparently things were different now.
The last time he’d seen him, the Russian had taken him to a fancy club around the corner from his hotel, and offered to buy him one of the gorgeous women lounging on bar stools and sitting at tables. The place was full of stunning women and very few men.
‘Is this a brothel?’ Flynn had asked, faintly amused.
Aleksandr had chuckled. ‘If it was, it would’ve been shut down years ago,’ he’d said. ‘This is a private club, and if a man should rent a room upstairs for the night, then it’s between him and the lady in question.’
Flynn had laughed. ‘I’ve never paid for it, and I’m not about to start now,’ he’d said. ‘But you go ahead.’
‘Me?’ Aleksandr had replied, stony-faced. ‘I am a happily married man, Flynn. I do not cheat. Too expensive. Too complicated.’
And now it wasn’t so complicated any more.
* * *
Spending half her life on a plane was nothing new for Xuan. Besides, she enjoyed flying. One of her unfulfilled ambitions was to take lessons and obtain her pilot’s licence. It was something she had promised herself she would do sometime in the future.
Martha, a Dutch woman who resided in Amsterdam, had offered Xuan anything she wanted if only she would give up travelling the world and move in with her. ‘Including flying lessons,’ Martha had promised.
‘When I am seventy-five,’ Xuan had joked.
Martha was fifty, divorced, affluent and attractive, with acceptable bedroom skills. Xuan was not tempted, she relished her independence too much.
Finished with Deshi, she hailed a taxi and visited a group of impoverished women and their children who lived in nothing more than a jumble of run-down shacks on the edge of Saigon. She took food and clothes and as much money as she could spare, then spent several hours with them, playing with the children, laughing and chatting with the women who were — in spite of their circumstances — surprisingly upbeat.
Back at her hotel she thought seriously about Flynn and their trip. It was bound to be excessive and over the top. Spoiled rich people vacationing knee-deep in luxury.
Would she be able to stand it?
For Flynn’s sake she’d try. And if it all got too much she’d simply take off. That was the cool thing about having no roots — when it was time to go, there was no one and nothing to stop her.
Lori made a firm decision. She was not allowing herself to give in to fear; she was a survivor, she could deal with this. It wasn’t like she hadn’t dealt with enough crap in her life, so why be frightened of two mangy, red-eyed wild animals?
She stared the two coyotes down with a purpose, then — when they didn’t move — she started yelling and frantically waving her arms in the air like a crazy person.
‘Fuck off, you little monsters!’ she screamed. ‘Get the fuck outta here!’
It was as if she had an angel watching over her, for the two coyotes suddenly turned around and slunk back into the bushes. Just like that.
‘Holy shit!’ she marvelled. ‘I did it!’
Then, just as she was about to use her cell phone to call for help, a young jogger appeared. He was wearing board shorts, a cut-off UCLA tee, and a sweatband to keep his blondish hair from falling into his eyes.
For a brief moment she was mesmerized by his legs standing over her, tanned and strong, athlete’s legs. He couldn’t be more than eighteen, so she forced herself to shift her gaze.
‘I heard yelling,’ he said, jogging in place. ‘You okay?’
‘I am now,’ she said, relieved to see him. ‘Damn coyotes looked about ready to eat me for breakfast.’
‘Bummer,’ he said, scratching his chin. ‘You hurt?’
‘It’s only my ankle. I’ll live.’
‘You need help?’
‘I guess so,’ she said tentatively, attempting to stand.
‘Right,’ he said, holding out his hand to help her up. ‘You shouldn’t jog by yourself. I tell my mom that all the time.’
His mom! She was twenty-four, for crap’s sake. Why was he comparing her to his mom? Maybe Cliff’s advanced age was rubbing off on her.
‘I jog by myself all the time,’ she said, enjoying the intense smell of fresh sweat emanating from his armpit. ‘Usually I bring my dogs.’
‘Big dogs or little dogs?’ he enquired. ‘’Cause if they’re little, the coyotes gonna wolf ’em down.’
‘Big dogs,’ she said, leaning on him.
‘Big is good,’ he said.
She wondered how many girls had uttered those words to him, for his package in board shorts left little to the imagination.
‘Yes,’ she managed, holding onto his arm and wincing as her foot hit the ground.
‘I could carry you if you can’t make it,’ he offered.
Nice one. She wouldn’t mind at all. She could sniff his armpit all the way down to the car park.
‘You’re sweet,’ she said. ‘If you don’t mind me hanging onto your arm, I think I can do it.’
‘Gotcha,’ he said.
‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’
‘Naw,’ he said casually. ‘I was about to turn around anyway.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Okay, Lori,’ he said, placing her arm around his neck, and getting a grip on her waist. ‘Let’s do this thing.’
* * *
Lori did not answer her phone. Voicemail picked up. Cliff was not about to tell her that they’d been invited on the Kasianenko yacht until he could watch her quiver with excitement. She’d be so thrilled.
Where was she? What did she do all day when he was busy working?
Girl things, he supposed. Shopping, mani-pedis, Pilates, spinning, shit like that.
He knew she was desperate for him to get her a job as an actress, but it didn’t seem right for the star to put his girlfriend in the movie. Although he could’ve if he’d wanted to. He didn’t, had to be careful that she wasn’t using him in that way, besides — what were actresses? Nothing but egomaniacs with tits and stylists. He’d had a few, and they always ended up causing hysterical scenes and running to the tabloids with a totally made-up story.
No more actresses for Cliff Baxter. Hell, no.
Reaching for his cell, he called Enid and told her to book him a garden booth at the Polo Lounge for tonight. He’d tell Lori then, and later she could show him her appreciation in her own very special way.
Yes, Cliff Baxter didn’t do anything unless it suited him.
Once Jeromy was in the house, the staff scuttled around on red alert. Jeromy was a fierce taskmaster who expected perfection at all times. He was also a stickler for rules, his rules. Everything had to be just so, even the way the pots and pans were laid out in the kitchen. Every single thing had to be spotless, not a speck of dust to be found anywhere.
On the other hand, Luca was totally laid back. He couldn’t care less if the outdoor cushions weren’t arranged just so. It didn’t bother him if a painting was crooked or the bed wasn’t made to Jeromy’s strict specifications.
When Jeromy was away, all was mellow. When he was in residence — look out!
The staff adored Luca.
The staff loathed Jeromy.
After arriving from London and enjoying a Mojito on the terrace with his younger boyfriend, Jeromy flashed the coveted invitation and informed Luca that they simply had to go.
Luca checked it out and enquired who else would be on the trip.
‘How would I know?’ Jeromy said with a casual shrug. ‘Although you can rest assured that they will be people of quality.’
Luca wrinkled his nose. There were times Jeromy said things that didn’t make any sense. What did ‘people of quality’ mean exactly? It must be one of Jeromy’s strange English expressions.
‘Sure we can go,’ he said, leaning back on his lounger. ‘I’m not in the recording studio until September, so it works for me.’
Jeromy was delighted. ‘We should go shopping,’ he announced, eyes gleaming at the thought of an entire new wardrobe of clothes. ‘The Valentino leisurewear this year is divine. We must both get fitted out. Perhaps matching white tuxedos?’
‘Why not?’ Luca said.
Jeromy nodded, fantasizing about how great they’d look in matching tuxedos.
‘Maybe I’ll call Bianca an’ see who else is going,’ Luca said. ‘Could be they’ll have room for Suga and Luca junior.’
Jeromy sat up ramrod straight, almost spilling his drink. Had he heard correctly? Was Luca mad? Did he honestly think he could inveigle an invitation for Suga Tits and the child?
No. It simply wasn’t right. Luca had to be stopped immediately.
‘That’s not acceptable,’ he said, the words almost sticking in his throat. ‘It would… ah… make me most uncomfortable.’
‘Uncomfortable?’ Luca questioned, trying to ignore the fact that Jeromy couldn’t stand Suga. ‘How’s that?’
‘You were married to the woman,’ Jeromy said with a supercilious sneer. ‘Her presence on the trip would definitely make me feel awkward. Besides, it’s not etiquette to start adding guests. This is obviously a very special trip, and I am sure everyone who’s been invited was hand-picked by our host.’
Luca shrugged. ‘I thought it would be a welcome surprise for Suga,’ he said, not thrilled by Jeromy’s attitude. ‘She needs cheering up.’
Cheering up, my English arse, Jeromy thought with a bitter twist. The bitch could light up Picadilly Circus with her phony smiles.
‘Exactly why does she need cheering up?’ he asked through clenched teeth.
‘Her ticket sales are down,’ Luca explained. ‘Kinda a blow to her ego.’
Huh! Jeromy thought. It would take more than a blow to crash that woman’s enormous ego. It would take a nuclear explosion.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ he said tightly. ‘Surely you can think of something else to lift her spirits?’
‘Like what?’ Luca said blankly.
Like who gives a damn.
‘I don’t know,’ Jeromy admitted. ‘We should think about it. Between us we’ll come up with something.’
Luca nodded, although he wasn’t sure he trusted Jeromy to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, Jeromy had no intention of coming up with anything. The annoying diva wasn’t his problem.
Then, deciding a change of pace was in order, he leaned over, gently tweaking Luca’s nipple. ‘Did you miss me?’ he cooed. ‘Were you a well-behaved boy?’
‘Were you?’ Luca retorted. He might be the super-star in this relationship, but he more than suspected that Jeromy was the slut. It didn’t bother him, because he knew that Jeromy was into things he wasn’t. He simply hoped that Jeromy was careful and never came home with any kind of disease to pass on.
‘I would never cheat on you, my little pumpkin,’ Jeromy crooned, completely out of character, his long thin fingers caressing Luca’s oiled abs.
‘Sure you would,’ Luca said mildly, feeling the beginning of a hard-on. He stood up. It wouldn’t be cool to have Jeromy suck him off while there were staff lurking around. ‘Let’s go inside,’ he suggested.
‘I’m right behind you,’ Jeromy said, thinking of the young boy in London, the young boy with the talented tongue and surly attitude.
In Jeromy’s relationship with Luca he’d found that it was always he who had to perform fellatio on Luca, it was always he in the subservient position.
But that’s what Luca was into. And since the one with all the money held all the power, then ultimately it was Luca who called the shots.
Jeromy had yet to challenge him.
‘Surely you realize that you have it all?’ Clare, Sierra’s sister, said with an envious sigh. She was a pretty woman, but nowhere near as lovely as Sierra. Clare’s hair was brown, not golden-copper. Her eyes were quite close together, not widely spaced like Sierra’s. Clare had compensated by honing her intellectual skills, and creating a warm and wonderful family life. ‘And on top of everything,’ she went on, ‘you’re about to take off on an incredible trip.’
Sure, Sierra thought. Incredible.
‘I wish I was going,’ Clare said wistfully. ‘You’ll have to tell me all about it. Oh yes, and be sure to keep a daily journal. I need to know everything, all the details.’ Another long-drawn-out sigh. ‘You’re so lucky.’
No, you’re the lucky one, Sierra thought. You with your comfortable house in Connecticut. Your teddy bear of a husband and your three terrific kids. Not to mention a successful writing career.
‘Um, yes,’ Sierra murmured. ‘I will.’
‘Do you have any idea who else is going?’ Clare enquired, leaning across the restaurant table, agog for some juicy news.
‘Not a clue,’ Sierra said, taking a sip of her martini. A bold move for lunch, but what the hell — getting drunk could be exactly what she needed. Oh yes, Hammond would love that, she thought, stifling an inane giggle. A drunken wife on his arm. A wife dressed to impress and totally loaded.
‘What are you laughing at?’ Clare wanted to know.
The insanity of my so-called perfect life, she thought.
‘I don’t know,’ she answered vaguely. ‘Nothing. Everything.’
‘For God’s sake, please do not drift off into one of your weird moods,’ Clare begged. ‘And why are you drinking in the middle of the day? What’s that about?’
‘Because I am a political wife,’ Sierra retorted grandly. ‘We shop. We drink. We shake hands. We pick up babies. That’s what we do.’
Clare shook her head disapprovingly. ‘I don’t know what’s up with you today,’ she said, frowning. ‘You’re not yourself.’
‘I wish,’ Sierra murmured, sotto voce.
‘Nothing,’ Sierra said, taking another sip of her martini.
‘Any news on the baby front?’ Clare asked. It was the same question she’d been asking ever since Sierra had married Hammond.
‘I guess I’m just not fertile,’ Sierra said, unwilling to tell her sister that she and Hammond never had sex. He didn’t want her in that way, and she certainly didn’t want him.
‘Or maybe he isn’t,’ Clare suggested. ‘Sometimes it’s the man’s fault.’
‘May I remind you he already has a child?’
‘That doesn’t matter,’ Clare said, intent on getting her point across. ‘He should still get tested.’
‘I’m not sure I even want a family,’ Sierra murmured, gulping down the rest of her martini.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Clare said firmly. ‘Of course you do.’
Sierra felt herself losing it. Why couldn’t Clare leave the subject alone? ‘You know what?’ she said.
‘I wish you’d do me a big favour and stop bringing it up all the time.’
Clare knew when to change the subject. ‘I got a text from Sean,’ she said, lowering her voice and glancing furtively around as if the middle-aged waiter standing nearby was even remotely interested.
‘What did he want?’ Sierra asked, thinking about their twenty-nine-year-old drop-out brother who lived in a run-down beach shack with a forty-two-year-old Puerto Rican divorcée in Hawaii.
‘What do you think he wanted?’ Clare said pointedly. Then answering her own question she added, ‘Money, of course.’
Actually, on reflection, Sierra realized that she quite envied Sean. How relaxing to do nothing but sit on a beach all day and beg for handouts from your family.
‘I sent him five hundred two weeks ago,’ she said.
Clare’s frown deepened. ‘I thought we agreed that we weren’t sending him any more money.’
‘He told me that he had a dental problem and was in horrible pain. I couldn’t ignore him. What was I supposed to do?’
‘Oh my God, Sierra, you’re so gullible,’ Clare scoffed. ‘How could you fall for that? You know he’s a blatant liar.’
‘Yes, I do know, but show some heart, Clare. He’s also our brother.’
‘I am not sending him one more red cent,’ Clare said, with a stubborn shake of her head. ‘I don’t care how much he begs. He’s a grown man, it’s about time he started acting like one. Furthermore, you should stop enabling him, because that’s exactly what you’re doing.’
‘I’m not enabling him,’ Sierra objected. ‘I’m helping him.’
‘No, you’re not helping him at all,’ Clare argued.
Sierra was too tired to fight with her sister. She had a strong urge to go home, crawl into bed and sleep. Depression was creeping over her like a black cloud, she could feel it coming on. Once life had held such shining promise. No more.
How had she allowed herself to reach such a miserable place?
Was it because she’d married Hammond?
They were all questions she could answer if she wanted to. However, it was simply easier to forget.
* * *
‘How old are you, dear?’ Hammond asked, leaning back in the chair behind his desk, his eyes inspecting every inch of the latest intern to join the staff.
Skylar blinked rapidly. She couldn’t believe that she was in Senator Patterson’s presence, that he actually knew she existed. It was all so exciting. Earlier that day she’d been introduced to Mrs Patterson, and now this!
‘Uh… I’m going to be nineteen next week,’ she said, fidgeting nervously. ‘And uh… may I say that it’s such an honour to be working here. I am a big admirer of yours, Senator, and of course your wife too.’
‘That’s nice,’ Hammond said, his honest brown eyes shifting into X-ray mode as he skilfully removed her clothes. He noted that she had large real breasts and wide hips. Not perfect like Sierra. Not a beauty, but attractive enough.
And she was young. He preferred them young.
As he sat behind his desk, he imagined placing his penis between her big breasts, then slowly moving up and coming all over her startled face.
After the initial shock, she would love it — they all did.
‘Well, Skylar,’ he said, pressing his fingers together, forming a little arc, ‘welcome to the team. We all believe in working together here. Sometimes late into the night.’ A long beat. ‘Does that bother you?’
‘Excuse me?’ Skylar said, still blinking.
‘Does working late bother you?’ Hammond asked patiently, thinking this one seemed a little slow.
‘No, no, not at all,’ Skylar said, full of enthusiasm. ‘That’s what I’m here for.’
No, Hammond thought, what you’re here for is to satisfy me sexually. And you will. Oh yes, you will. Your turn will come. And soon.
Divorce is never easy, but Aleksandr Kasianenko was prepared to give Rushana, his wife of seventeen years and mother of his three daughters, whatever she wanted. Unfortunately, what Rushana wanted was to stay married to him, so she and her lawyer were making things as difficult as possible, unnecessarily so.
Aleksandr was beyond irritated. He had offered Rushana everything she could desire, and yet there always seemed to be another roadblock.
The divorce wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t planned on falling in love with Bianca, only it had happened, and Rushana should simply accept it.
Aleksandr was determined that on the forthcoming yacht trip he would propose to Bianca. He was doing it whether he was free or not. He’d already purchased the ring, a two-million-dollar rare emerald surrounded with diamonds. It was a ring fit for the woman he planned to marry. Bianca would love it, just as she loved him.
He’d never met a woman like Bianca before. So beautiful and yet so independent and strong. And passionate. In the bedroom she fulfilled him in every way.
Yes, Aleksandr enjoyed everything about her, although he could do without her fame. The pesky photographers who followed her everywhere. The annoying fans who had no sense of keeping their distance. The hangers-on who often surrounded her. And the Internet, where people made up ridiculous stories every single day.
After a year with his love, he’d learned to ignore the chaos around her. Bianca was his, and nothing could ever change that.
However, he would be lying if he said he didn’t relish the peace when Bianca was in another country. He could walk down the street unmolested, and be happy that there were no photographers trailing him.
His faithful bodyguard was always in attendance: Kyril, a solid brick of a man who watched his every move, for one could never be too careful. Aleksandr was well aware that he had enemies, it came with the territory. He was a billionaire businessman, who along the way had attracted his fair share of haters. People who were jealous of his wealth. Business rivals. His wife’s two needy brothers who felt that he should’ve done more for them. It wasn’t enough that he’d bought them both houses and given them jobs at which they’d both failed. Was he supposed to support their lazy asses forever?
No. With the divorce came freedom from Rushana’s clingy family.
The only regret Aleksandr had was that he was no longer living with his three daughters. They’d remained with their mother, and rightly so. He could see them whenever he wished to, but since they resided in his former home fifteen miles outside of Moscow, it wasn’t that easy to make the time.
He had yet to introduce them to Bianca, although in the following months he hoped to do so. It didn’t help that the last time he’d seen them, Mariska, his youngest, had said, ‘Mama told us you have an American whore girlfriend. What’s a whore, Poppa?’
Aleksandr was furious. Rushana had better learn to control her mouth. He would not stand for her insulting the love of his life.
* * *
After Madrid, Bianca headed for Paris and a full-out spending spree. She knew all the designers and they were delighted to accommodate her, because whenever Bianca was photographed in one of their outfits, sales soared. Bianca was adept at negotiating outrageous discounts, plus she also managed to get many things for free.
Her excitement was building about the trip. She had a feeling that something special was going to take place — she had no clue what, but knowing Aleksandr it would be major.
Bianca had legions of friends in Paris — mostly in the fashion business and mostly gay. She planned on flying on to Moscow the next day, but in the meantime she called several of her friends, and they all met up for drinks at the Plaza Athenée, before moving on for a decadent dinner at her favourite dining bistro, the well-established L’Ami Louis, where everyone pigged out on the heavenly potato cakes sautéed in duck fat, and the amazingly tender grilled beef. For dessert they indulged in dishes of wild strawberries piled high and topped with crème fraiche. It was a decadent feast.
Bianca ate everything. Usually she watched her diet, but tonight she felt like letting go.
After dinner her sometime hair stylist, Pierre, suggested they move on to a club. So they ended up at Amnesia, a mostly gay bar with incredible sounds.
Bianca danced the night away with no inhibitions. When she was out with Aleksandr she felt as if she had to behave herself, keep her wild side strictly for the bedroom. Tonight it was all systems go, and since the ever-lurking paparazzi had no idea she was in Paris, she was free to be herself.
Ah… freedom from prying photo lenses! Oh, how Bianca embraced it.
However, what she didn’t take into account was so-called friends with mobile phones. And while she was letting it all hang loose, one of them was capturing images that would soon be for sale.
Her friend, Pierre, might be gay, but did the rest of the world know it?
Absolutely not. So photos of Bianca hugging and kissing him, dancing in a skirt so short anyone could see she was not wearing panties, grinding on a stripper pole, and generally cavorting — well, those photos were pure gold. Soon they would hit the Internet with a vengeance.
In the meantime Bianca was blissfully unaware of the clandestine shots being taken. She danced the night away with a smile on her face, and had herself a fine old time.
If there was one thing Ashley hated it was when her mother attempted to spew forth a mouthful of advice, as if Elise had any clue what she was talking about. Three failed marriages and a job in a department store at her age. Exactly who would listen to her?
Certainly not Ashley, for she considered herself streets ahead of her mum. She’d moved up in life, far far away from her humble beginnings. Not only was she married to a famous footballer, even more importantly she was part of a successful interior-design team. Partnering with Jeromy had been a clever move on her part. Jeromy had a stellar reputation, and now that they were working side by side, so did she.
Well, it was kind of side by side because they weren’t exactly equal partners, even though Taye had put money into the business. When she’d first started working with him, Jeromy had bestowed on her the title Creative Consultant. She’d been a bit miffed at first, but so far it had worked out. Whenever Jeromy had a celebrity client, he allowed her input. It was fun at first, but then she’d begun noticing that he always introduced her as Ashley Sherwin, Taye Sherwin’s wife.
It pissed her off. Wasn’t being Ashley Sherwin enough? Did Jeromy have to tag on that she was Taye’s wife? What was that about?
When this had happened a couple of times she’d brought it to his attention, pointing out that it certainly wasn’t necessary to give Taye billing.
Jeromy had gone all confused and gay on her. ‘I’m so sorry, sweet thing,’ he’d purred. ‘I would never do anything to upset you.’
After that he’d stopped bringing up Taye’s name in front of her, although somehow or other all the clients seemed to know.
Eventually she’d complained a second time, causing Jeromy to adopt a more frosty attitude. ‘Is it my fault that you and Taye are photographed wherever you go?’ he’d said with an imperious curl of his lip. ‘People recognize you, dear. Besides, it’s good for business. Get used to it, or may I suggest that you stay out of the magazines.’
It was true, she couldn’t argue with Jeromy’s logic. She and Taye were a staple in every magazine. Heat and Closer often featured them on the cover. And Hello and OK! had done numerous ‘at home’ pictorials with her, Taye and the twins. As for the Internet — their photos were everywhere. Taye’s Facebook page had millions of followers, plus he insisted on Tweeting himself, and occasionally posting intimate family shots he’d taken with his favourite Nikon camera — a birthday gift she regretted giving him. He was always trying to catch her unawares, then posting the stupid photos of her asleep or half-dressed.
The problem was that Jeromy was right, she was in all the magazines, and that was good for business, so eventually she’d stopped complaining.
* * *
The moment Ashley invited Elise to stay at their house while they went on their trip, Elise had moved in, even though Ashley had insisted it was way too soon. ‘We don’t leave for another week,’ she’d pointed out. ‘No need for you to be here this early, Mum.’
‘I know,’ Elise had responded, thrilled to get out of her tiny apartment, ‘but I want the twins to get used to having me around. And you don’t mind, do you, Taye?’ she’d added, simpering at her handsome son-in-law, who — once she’d got over the fact that he was black — she absolutely adored.
Taye had nodded. Anything for a peaceful life.
Now they were sitting at dinner in their dining room, and Elise was droning on and on about how they should conduct themselves on their upcoming trip.
‘You have to change outfits three times a day,’ she instructed. ‘Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I read that’s what these fancy people do on their yachts.’
‘Really?’ Ashley drawled sarcastically. ‘Where did you read that?’
‘On the Internet,’ Elise said, then spitting up further gems she added, ‘and don’t be taking any ripped or torn knickers. They have people to do your washing, and you wouldn’t want them talking about you behind your back.’
‘Bloody hell, they’ll have a right old time with my drawers,’ Taye joked, letting forth a ribald chuckle. ‘Skidmarks galore.’
Ashley threw him a disapproving glare. ‘Don’t encourage her,’ she said sharply. ‘And stop being vulgar.’
‘Lighten up, toots, I’m only jokin’,’ Taye said, wondering if there was any chance of him getting a leg over tonight.
‘Well, she’s not,’ Ashley hissed. ‘She believes every word of it.’
‘Fine,’ Elise said grandly. ‘Don’t take me seriously, but I know of what I speak. I read all about it.’
‘Where exactly?’ Ashley demanded.
‘I Googled yacht etiquette,’ Elise replied, straight-faced. ‘Are you aware that you’re supposed to tip the staff at the end of the trip?’
‘Good to know,’ Taye said cheerfully. ‘I’d better go raid me piggy bank.’
‘It’s no joke,’ Elise said, wagging a stern finger at the two of them. ‘The staff talk, and the last thing you need is a reputation as a cheapskate.’
‘Watch it, missus,’ Taye smirked. ‘Nobody’s ever accused me of bein’ cheap.’
Ashley had heard enough. ‘I’m going to bed,’ she sighed.
‘It’s not even nine, toots,’ Taye objected.
Too tired for a quick shag?
‘I’ll join you then,’ Taye said, rising from the table.
‘What am I supposed to do?’ Elise whined.
‘I dunno,’ Ashley said. ‘Why don’t you go and Google some more useless information.’
‘All I’m trying to do is help,’ Elise said. ‘Although if you don’t appreciate it…’
‘You’re right, I don’t,’ Ashley said, before abruptly exiting the room.
Elise turned to Taye. ‘What’ve I done now?’ she asked plaintively.
Taye felt a bit sorry for her, because when Ashley was in one of her bitchy moods there was no stopping her.
‘I think she’s got one of her headaches,’ he said, making an excuse for his wife’s bad behaviour.
‘I don’t know why she thinks she can take it out on me,’ Elise grumbled. ‘I’ve done everything for that girl, made sacrifices you wouldn’t believe. And let me tell you, when her father walked out on us, Ashley was six, and I didn’t give up, I kept on going for her sake.’ Elise’s lower lip began to tremble. ‘My little girl never lacked for anything. Singing lessons, dancing, piano, she had it all. I used to drive her to all the auditions. And look how it paid off. If she hadn’t married you, she could’ve been a big star.’
‘I bet,’ Taye said, wondering how to make a quick getaway before Elise continued her story of sacrifice. ‘Anyway, you know what, luv — Ashley’s a big star to me, so that’s all that matters, right?’
And with those words, he was out the door.
I’m coming to Paris early, Xuan texted Flynn. Please book me a hotel.
No way, he texted back. You’ll stay with me. Send details of your arrival.
Which is how he found himself at the airport waiting for her flight to arrive.
He got there early, spent some time perusing the magazine stands, picked up a copy of Newsweek and settled back to wait.
Xuan’s plane was an hour late. She emerged from the gate with a purposeful stride, attracting attention wherever she went. She might be petite, but she was certainly a beauty with her almond-shaped eyes, full cherry lips, and sweep of straight black hair that fell way below her compact bottom.
Men paid attention, so did women.
Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Flynn thought, waving at her. Lesbian signals are surely wafting in the air.
Xuan headed towards him with just an oversized shoulder bag filled with everything she might need.
‘Any more luggage?’ Flynn asked, giving her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.
‘Nope,’ Xuan replied, indicating her bag. ‘This is it.’
Flynn attempted to take it from her.
She shrugged him away with a caustic — ‘What? You think I can’t carry my own bag?’
He shook his head, amused. When it came to Xuan, nothing ever changed. She was fiercely independent. Whenever they’d been out chasing a story in war zones or other dangerous places, she’d always insisted on being treated like one of the boys.
So be it.
They took a cab back to his apartment. Flynn didn’t own a car; he was never in one city long enough to be bothered with the responsibility.
His apartment was a small one-bedroom. He’d already decided that Xuan could have the bed, and he’d bunk down on the couch.
When he told her, she laughed in his face. ‘No, Flynn. You can keep your bed, the couch suits me fine.’
‘Still as stubborn as ever.’
‘This is true,’ she answered with a slight smile.
Later they left the apartment and dined at a nearby bistro Flynn frequented when he was in town. Xuan drank red wine and regaled him with stories of her adventures in Vietnam. She told him about the children she’d visited and the women who’d had to put up with so many incredible hardships.
Flynn listened sympathetically. He understood. There was so much misery in the world, and it never saw the light of day unless someone dedicated — like Xuan or even himself — grabbed a platform to write about it.
‘Maybe you should write a book,’ Xuan announced, devouring a plate of spaghetti, the tomato sauce dribbling down her delicate pointed chin.
‘I wrote a book,’ Flynn reminded her, although he couldn’t remember if he’d ever mentioned it before.
Apparently not, for Xuan looked surprised. ‘What book?’ she asked.
‘Bullshit travel stories,’ he replied, slightly embarrassed. ‘When I was younger.’
‘I want to read it.’
‘Not your style.’
‘You wouldn’t like it.’
‘I wrote it when I was very young.’
‘Ah,’ Xuan said, her eyes shining bright. ‘And now you’re so ancient.’
Flynn laughed. ‘You’re the one who should write a book,’ he said, leaning across the table and dabbing the sauce from her chin with his napkin.
She stiffened, and snatched the napkin from him.
‘Okay, okay,’ he said, throwing up his hands. ‘I know you don’t like to be touched unless it’s sexual.’
‘You and I, we’re never going there,’ Xuan stated, as if it was a well-known fact.
‘You’re so right,’ he retorted.
The bistro-owner’s daughter, Mai, who was waitressing, approached their table. Mai was a pretty girl who could not understand why Flynn had never invited her out. Tonight she was not pleased to see him with a woman, for he usually dined alone.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Mai asked, shooting Xuan a dirty look.
‘More wine,’ Flynn said. ‘And maybe a look at the dessert menu.’
‘Oui, monsieur,’ Mai said, suddenly going all French and formal on him. ‘Tout de suite.’
Flynn caught her attitude. So did Xuan.
‘She likes you,’ Xuan said with a knowing smile as Mai walked away.
‘And I like her,’ Flynn responded. ‘What’s not to like?’
‘Ah yes,’ Xuan added. ‘Only you like her as simply another girl. She likes you to jump into bed with.’
‘No way,’ Flynn objected. ‘We’re friends.’
‘You’re so naïve when it comes to women,’ Xuan said, shaking back her long hair.
‘Not naïve, merely careful,’ Flynn replied. ‘Haven’t you heard the expression — don’t crap where you eat?’
‘You mean shit,’ Xuan said succinctly.
‘I’m being polite.’
Another knowing smile. ‘After all we’ve been through together you’re being polite? I’m one of the boys — remember?’
‘Sure,’ Flynn said, deftly switching subjects. ‘However, has it occurred to you that maybe she likes you?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Why? You’re not feeling the vibe?’ Flynn teased.
‘No,’ Xuan said with a casual shrug. ‘I am not.’
‘I told you,’ Flynn said, continuing to tease. ‘Feel free to take the bedroom whenever you want, it’s all yours.’
‘It seems to me that you’re very evasive when it comes to women,’ Xuan said.
‘How’s that?’ Flynn answered vaguely.
‘I’ve observed that wherever we are in the world, you might allow yourself one night with a woman, only never more than one night.’
‘And you’re so different?’ he retaliated.
‘I’m a loner, Flynn, I always have been.’
‘So am I.’
Mai returned and thrust menus at them.
As Flynn studied the menu, he realized it was the most personal conversation he’d ever had with Xuan, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like anyone poking around in his so-called love-life. It was nobody’s business but his.
‘Dessert?’ he asked stiffly.
‘Coffee,’ Xuan relied. ‘Black. Nothing fancy.’
‘It’ll keep you awake,’ he pointed out.
‘My problem, not yours.’
Standing by the table, Mai tapped her foot impatiently.
‘One black coffee, Mai,’ Flynn said, glancing up at her. ‘And do you have any of that delicious pie you keep for special customers?’
Mai softened as she sensed there was nothing going on between Flynn and the Asian woman. ‘For you,’ she said softly, ‘bien sûr.’
‘Thanks, Mai.’ And he couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to sleep with the young French woman. She was certainly pretty enough, and from what he could tell she had a nice personality.
No — it wouldn’t work out. After a few weeks he’d end it and she’d be upset and hurt. Random hook-ups were not worth the trouble. Besides, he planned on still frequenting the bistro when he was in town, and like he’d told Xuan — do not shit where you eat. A firm rule to believe in.
‘Did you come?’ Cliff asked as he rolled over to his side of the bed. He wasn’t that concerned; on the other hand, he was not averse to a rave review.
‘Oh my God, did I!’ Lori responded, full of fake enthusiasm. She didn’t believe in lying unless it was absolutely necessary, only why tell one of the biggest movie stars in the world that once again he hadn’t hit a home run?
Cliff was okay in bed, although he was certainly no Superman. He was almost fifty years old and a textbook lover. Five minutes of foreplay, followed by a quick fuck, followed by her going down on him until he came in her mouth and woe betide if she didn’t swallow — that really pissed him off.
She knew why. He’d once relayed the story of a famous tennis player who’d allowed a random date in a restaurant to slip under the table and suck him off. But Random Date was smart: she hadn’t swallowed, she’d spat his sperm into a paper cup and rushed it to a friendly doctor who’d inseminated her, and voila! One successful paternity suit.
Cliff Baxter had to know exactly where his precious sperm was headed. And who could blame him?
It was almost a week after the coyote/sprained ankle incident. Lori was fully recovered, for that’s all it had been, a light sprain.
Cliff had filled her in about the amazing trip they were to take; he’d even sent her out with his personal stylist to purchase a few suitable outfits.
The thought of the Kasianenko yacht intimidated her. Everyone would either be very old, obscenely rich, or at the very least horribly famous. And there she’d be, just the girlfriend, for it was common knowledge that Cliff Baxter was a confirmed bachelor, who had no intention of ever getting married. He said so in every interview he ever gave, hammering the point home.
Being just the girlfriend was starting to get old. It occurred to Lori that he could dump her anytime, exactly like he’d done with the string of girls before her. It was a scary thought. What would she do? Where would she go?
Although Cliff paid for anything she wanted, he didn’t give her actual money. He had given her a Visa card with a five-thousand-dollar limit, and knowing Cliff, if they split, he’d cancel it immediately. Basically that meant she’d be as broke as when she’d entered into the relationship. He’d presented her with a few pieces of jewelry, nothing too expensive. Even the car she drove was only a lease — registered in his company’s name.
What could she do to secure her position?
Nothing much, except continue to please him.
Lately she’d been thinking about the young man who’d rescued her on the hike. Chip, with his strong thighs and rippling muscles. What a hunk. Was it wrong to fantasize about him while Cliff was on top of her?
Funny really, here she was getting boned by a man who millions of women lusted after, a man she’d once thought she’d loved, and her excitement level hovered at zero. What was wrong with her?
Nothing. She simply wasn’t into a man who was almost twenty-six years older than her and treated her like an accessory.
Why didn’t anyone ever mention the age gap when they were busy writing about them?
Because nobody wanted to get on Cliff Baxter’s bad side, that’s why.
* * *
It occurred to Cliff that Lori had not been as thrilled about going on a magnificent yacht as he’d expected her to be. He’d been prepared for fireworks and raging excitement. Instead he’d gotten a half-hearted, ‘Sounds great.’
Hmm… was Lori starting to take the good life for granted?
Was she getting blasé?
No. Impossible. She was living a life she could only have dreamed about. She was with him, and he knew without a doubt that most women would give their left tit to be in that position. After all, he’d been voted Sexiest Man Alive in People two years in a row. He had an Oscar and an Emmy. A red-hot long-standing career. Three cars. A New York apartment. A mansion in Beverly Hills. A house in Tuscany. No ties to hold him down.
In short, he had the perfect life.
Or did he?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
A resounding trio of yeses. He had enough married friends to convince him that staying single was the only way to go. He’d worked hard for his money, and how many poor schmucks had he seen lose half of what they’d earned to some greedy soon-to-be ex who demanded everything.
He could understand if there were kids involved, since child support was a given. Other than that — forget it.
Was Lori reaching that all too familiar stage in their relationship where she wanted more?
The dreaded word.
No, thank you.
Cliff made a decision. He’d take her on the trip, make sure she had a wonderful time, and then when they returned to L.A., he’d ever so gently cut her loose.
Cliff Baxter would soon be back out there. Single and ready for the next adventure.
They went shopping. They spent a lot of money. Or rather Luca spent and Jeromy encouraged. They bought clothes and shoes and luggage from the designer stores, then finally they stopped by Cartier, where Luca gifted Jeromy with a black Seatimer Pasha watch for everyday use. At nighttime they both wore their gold Rolexes, but Jeromy had his eye on a more expensive model.
Luca didn’t get the hint. Instead, he bought Suga a diamond-encrusted bracelet as a consolation prize for her cut-short tour.
Jeromy tried not to look pissed off, although he was. When would Luca stop spending money on the fat cow? Would that magical day ever come?
The previous night they’d had dinner with Suga and Luca junior. Today Jeromy’s facial muscles hurt from the big phony smile he’d had plastered on his face all night. Luca junior was annoying, but Suga was an embarrassment, and Jeromy hated being seen out in public with her.
Of course the photographers and lurking paparazzi were all over them. Since Luca had emerged from the closet he was more popular than ever. His super-star ex-wife, Suga, and bright-eyed young son, added spice to a story that everyone loved to read about. Photos of them together were gold dust.
When it came to attention, Luca lapped it up. He was so good-looking and charming. A blond Latin god who’d risen from nothing and conquered it all. His music reached out to everyone, and he’d never forgotten his roots and the sensual salsa sounds that were so much a part of his past. He recorded his songs in both Spanish and English, and they were always worldwide hits. His lyrics inspired people.
Because Suga was still so much in the picture, Jeromy found himself to be the odd one out. The magazines, newspapers and gossip sites seemed to overlook the fact that he and Luca were partners; they rarely mentioned him, and he was nearly always cut out of press photographs. It infuriated him. How come David Furnish was always pictured alongside Elton John? How come everyone knew who David Furnish was? And how about Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi? Never apart in the press.
Then it struck Jeromy.
Of course. They were married. They were legal.
So that’s what he had to do — persuade Luca to marry him.
One thing he knew for sure, it would not be easy.
* * *
When Luca had come out to Suga she had not been surprised, for she’d always suspected that he preferred boys to girls. In spite of this she’d married him anyway. Why not? He was a beauty and he had a generous soul. Plus he was extraordinarily talented, and she’d decided it was her calling to nurture that talent and make him into a star. Which she’d done, very successfully.
Getting pregnant was a bonus. Giving birth to Luca junior was the best day of her life. Forget about all the accolades and the gold records and the fan worship, having a healthy baby boy was the pinnacle. She’d relished sharing parenthood with Luca, while also watching his career rise.
Then one day he’d come to her and told her he was living a lie, that he was a gay man, and could no longer keep it to himself. She’d understood and immediately set him free.
Only he wasn’t free, was he? Slimy English Jeromy had somehow or other inveigled his way into Luca’s life and appeared to be here to stay. Suga did not like Jeromy. She did not trust him. And she sure as hell knew that he resented her as only an angry, jealous gay man can.
Unbeknownst to Luca, she’d had Jeromy investigated, and the results of said investigation were not great. Jeromy’s design business was in trouble — in spite of the fact that he constantly boasted about how well he was doing. His personal life was also suspect. He was not at all faithful to Luca. In London he was a well-known figure at fetish and leather clubs, and he often used the Internet to trawl for fresh meat.
Did Luca know any of this? Was it up to her to tell him? Or if she did, would he resent her forever?
She knew that she had to tread carefully, and perhaps come up with a plan to get Jeromy out of Luca’s life once and for all.
But how? It was something she had to think about.
‘Thank you, dear,’ Hammond said as Skylar placed a mug of coffee on his desk. ‘I warned you there would be late nights.’
‘Yes, you did,’ she said sweetly.
‘And are you absolutely certain you’re okay with it?’
‘Of course I am, Senator,’ Skylar replied, flattered that she was the only one he’d chosen to stay late. She’d only been working for him for a few days, and already she felt special. The offices were deserted except for a couple of cleaners who were busying themselves outside. Even his two assistants had left for the night.
‘I’ll be needing some papers copied shortly,’ he said, all business.
‘I’ll wait,’ Skylar offered.
‘Then you may as well wait in here,’ Hammond said, indicating the leather couch across from his desk. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’
‘Are you sure, Senator?’ Skylar asked tentatively. ‘I could wait outside.’
‘No, no dear. Sit yourself down. I’m expecting a call, and until it comes through I’m stuck here.’
‘You work so hard,’ Skylar ventured, her tone full of admiration as she settled on the couch and crossed her legs.
‘Yes,’ Hammond agreed. ‘I suppose I do.’
He noted that her thighs were a tad too heavy and her skirt much too short. She had on a pair of wedge-heeled shoes that all the young girls seemed to favour, not at all sexy. Her legs were bare though, which made up for the clumsy shoes. He imagined running his hands up her legs, starting at the ankle and slowly travelling all the way up until he reached her meaty thighs, then plunging his fingers into what lay beyond.
‘My wife doesn’t understand why I have to work so late,’ Hammond said, playing the sympathy card. ‘The truth is, she doesn’t get it.’
‘Oh,’ Skylar said, thrilled that Senator Hammond Patterson was actually confiding in her, making her feel even more special.
‘Relationships have their ups and downs,’ Hammond continued, taking a sip of his coffee. He paused for a moment and gave her a long, lingering look. ‘And how about you, dear? Are you in a relationship?’
‘Uh… um…’ Skylar faltered, thinking of her football-playing boyfriend with whom she was always breaking up. ‘Sort of,’ she managed.
Hammond’s honest brown eyes twinkled. ‘Sort of?’ he said. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Well, er… sometimes we’re together and sometimes we’re not,’ Skylar admitted, nervously tugging at her short skirt, wishing she’d worn something a little more circumspect. But how was she supposed to know that she’d end the day sitting in Senator Patterson’s private office? It was an honour she had not expected.
‘Boys,’ Hammond said with a meaningful chuckle. ‘Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.’
‘I totally agree,’ Skylar said, starting to feel more as ease.
‘This sometime boyfriend of yours,’ Hammond continued. ‘Does he push you to do things you might not feel comfortable doing?’
‘Excuse me?’ Skylar said, startled.
‘I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.’
‘Uh… n-no, I don’t,’ Skylar stammered.
‘Sexual things,’ Hammond said, feeling a rising hard-on as he watched the girl squirm and blush beet-red. ‘No need to be embarrassed,’ he added, adopting his best fatherly voice. ‘I have a teenage daughter, you know. She tells me what goes on between boys and girls. She listens to me and I give her advice.’
‘Oh,’ Skylar said, filled with relief. For a moment she’d thought the esteemed Senator was about to come on to her, and how would she handle that?
‘Boys are only after one thing,’ Hammond said evenly. He was tempted to yell, Pussy! Young juicy pussy! However, he controlled himself. This one wasn’t quite ready, and it wouldn’t do to have her screaming rape if he touched her. ‘Anyway, Skylar — it is Skylar, isn’t it?’
‘Uh… yes, Senator.’
‘You can go now.’
‘But I thought—’
Don’t think, you stupid little girl. Simply get out of my office before I change my mind and jam my cock into your dumb mouth.
‘That’s all right,’ he said easily. ‘Everything can wait until the morning.’
Skylar jumped to her feet. ‘If you’re sure…’ she said hesitantly.
‘I’m sure,’ Hammond replied, busying himself with some papers on his desk. ‘Good night, dear.’
Slightly disappointed that she was being dismissed, Skylar slunk out.
Hammond immediately hurried into his private bathroom and masturbated, staring at his well-put-together reflection in the mirror while thinking of how it would feel, the first time he came in Skylar’s mouth, the first time he stuck it into her, the rubbing and fondling of her big breasts naked against his bare chest.
He could wait.
He’d done so, many times before.
* * *
Sierra had shopped. Reluctantly. She’d bought clothes she knew would please her husband. Although why the hell she wanted to please him was beyond her comprehension.
Oh yes. Of course. She’d given up. Given in to the threats and insults he hurled at her. She was his docile arm-piece. She was — to the general public — the perfect wife.
Hammond had caught her in a trap, and the only way out would be to end it all.
Or… she could run to her parents and tell them what a terrible monster her husband was, and hope and pray that he would not carry out any of his dire threats.
However, that would be taking too big a risk. Hammond was a dangerous man, and as long as she went along with what he wanted — everyone would be safe.
As each day, week, month passed, Sierra sought solace in a variety of pills. They kept her calm. They kept her going.
They were gradually sucking the life out of her.
Six months after the murder of his older brother, Boris, Sergei Zukov had moved to Mexico City, where over the years Boris had built many solid connections in the arms and drugs world. Sergei was finished with Russia. Even though the Zukov gang supposedly had people in high places on their payroll, those people had done nothing about finding and prosecuting his brother’s murderer. It seemed to be too sensitive a subject, with no one prepared to do shit.
And why was that?
Because Boris Zukov was a known criminal, and even though he’d never spent more than one night in jail, it was a well-known fact that Boris was capable of monstrous crimes. Kidnap, murder, torture, drugs, arms running.
Neither the authorities nor the public cared that a violent criminal had been thrown from a fourteenth-floor window to his certain death.
Sergei cared. Sergei cared deeply. His brother was everything to him. Boris had raised him when their mother had run off with a local car salesman, leaving them with their drunken, violent father, Vlad.
When their mother left, Boris was sixteen and tough as an old boot. Sergei was six, and scared.
Over the years Boris had protected him from everything, making sure that he attended school, watching out that nothing bad happened to him. Boris had acted more like his father than Vlad.
Vlad was a heavy-set lazy oaf of a man, who couldn’t care less about raising his two sons, although he certainly didn’t mind living off the money Boris brought home, never once asking where it came from.
Boris hated him. He taught Sergei to feel the same.
When Sergei was ten, Vlad had arrived home one afternoon and flown into a drunken rage when he’d discovered that Sergei had finished the paltry amount of milk left in the empty fridge. He’d beaten the boy badly, cut his cheek with a razor blade, then settled back to watch TV, nursing a full bottle of vodka.
That night, Boris returned to their small apartment late. He was already creating a fierce reputation selling street drugs and making sure he was available for any other jobs that might come his way.
Even a little murder on the side if the price was right.
Yes, at twenty, Boris Zukov was an up and coming man.
After he’d gotten home, having had a rough night of sex with a randy local girl, he’d walked in to check on his younger brother, only to find Sergei crouched in a corner, whimpering and covered in blood from a gash on his cheek, his eyes blackened, his nose broken, and his skinny body full of welts from his father’s heavy belt.
It wasn’t necessary to ask who’d done it. Boris had no doubt that it was Vlad.
With a mask-like face he’d marched into the bedroom all three of them shared, taken a pillow from Vlad’s bed, and returned to the family room.
His father was passed out in an armchair in front of the TV, still clutching the bottle of vodka he’d been swigging from earlier. It was empty.
Stealthily, Boris positioned himself behind the chair, placing the pillow firmly over his father’s face, ignoring the old man’s muffled cries of shock.
Boris kept the pillow in place until there was no breath left in the drunken man.
Suffocation. Vlad deserved it. He was a sorry excuse for a father — they were better off without him.
* * *
When Sergei was eighteen, Boris had packed him off to a college in the UK. Sergei had liked it, what with all the pretty girls and available sex. Mastering the English language had come easy for him; learning economics and book-keeping was also a breeze. When he’d returned to Moscow, Boris had put him to work organizing the financial records of his various so-called legitimate businesses, most of which were merely a front for his criminal activities.
It was tricky. Two sets of books, sometimes three — but Sergei had turned out to be a master at manipulating numbers.
Everything was going smoothly until Boris’s untimely death. It was then that the problems had started. Sergei had attempted to take over, but there were men in the organization who did not want him seizing control. Men who were older and more experienced. Men with more clout, who thought they were entitled to replace Boris Zukov. These men blocked Sergei at every turn, although they were happy to keep using his book-manipulating skills.
Sergei had burned with fury, for he knew that as Boris’s brother he was the one who should’ve stepped into his shoes. But no — he was deemed unworthy to fill that role. It was disappointing because Boris had been so proud of him. ‘My brother, the smart one,’ he’d often boast to whoever would listen.
Yes, Sergei was smart all right. He’d never stolen from his brother, but with Boris gone he began manoeuvring money from the businesses, then moving it out of the country. After a while he’d amassed enough to make an overnight exit.
Fuck the men who claimed to be Boris’s partners. He’d taken what he considered to be his rightful inheritance and fled to Mexico, where it wasn’t long before he reconnected with the people Boris had done business with in the past.
Now, at thirty-two, five years after Boris’s murder, he had a new life and more money than he could ever hope to spend.
Input Denim, Inc. was a clothing company he’d purchased, a line of clothes that sold all across the US, Europe and the Middle East. He’d also taken over a worldwide medical supply and waste company. Both businesses were savvy fronts for his real business — the drug trade.
Over a short period of time Sergei had managed to turn himself into a master drug kingpin, with major ties to the Mexican drug cartels. He was a natural at covering his tracks and making new friends.
Apart from his crooked nose — which had never set properly — and the vicious scar on his cheek, Sergei wasn’t bad-looking. He was not tall, but his build was quite muscular. He smothered his face and body in fake tan, and exhibited shining white teeth — all capped. Sergei particularly enjoyed the company of women, and they seemed to like him back. Cocaine was his drug of choice. His special kick was snorting it off the body of whatever woman or women he might be with, then packing a fair amount of coke into their vaginas before sucking it out. Good times.
His ex-wife — a Ukrainian model who’d divorced him when she’d found out he was into four-way sex — now lived in New York and headed the legitimate part of his clothing company. Their marriage had barely lasted six months.
He had no children — or at least not any that he knew of, for fucking was his favourite pasttime, second only to making money.
Currently he resided in a penthouse in Mexico City. Weekends he spent at the villa he owned on the water in Acapulco, complete with helicopter pad.
Sergei made sure he was always surrounded by half a dozen faithful and dedicated henchmen. In business, a man could never be too careful.
Boris would be so proud if he could see him now. He’d seized control of his destiny, exactly as his big brother would have wanted him to do.
The one thing that continued to bother Sergei was finding out who had arranged the hit on Boris, and exactly who had carried out the plan. For it was a plan, he was sure of that.
Sergei wanted that person and he wanted them badly.
Over the years he’d never been able to find out. Not knowing ate away at him, for revenge was essential for his peace of mind.
Boris would expect him to exact revenge; indeed, Boris would demand it.
There had been only one witness to the crime, and that was the woman Boris had been living with at the time — a young French slut who went by the name of Nona. The girl had taken off with the contents of Boris’s safe the day after his demise. Sergei had been trying to seek her out ever since; however, she’d managed to disappear.
Over the five years she’d been missing, he’d hired several detectives to find her, but it was only in the last month that he’d received any results. She’d been located in Arizona, where she was living with a divorced businessman.
Sergei was currently on his way to pay her a long-overdue visit.
The conniving bitch owed him the money she’d stolen from Boris’s private safe, and more than that — she owed him the information about who had set up the murder of his brother.
Sergei was convinced she knew.
And he would get it out of her, one way or the other.
Sleek, sensual, powerful and fast, Aleksandr’s new yacht was all of that and more. He had ordered an elegant state-of-the-art vessel that could take him anywhere in the world, and that’s exactly what he’d ended up with.
Luxury abounded. There were sun decks on three levels, all with their own bars and spacious dining areas. Plus a spiral staircase leading to all levels. There was a counter-flow swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, a fully equipped gym, plus a Pilates retreat. On the lower deck was an authentic Finnish sauna, a steam room, a hair salon, a movie theatre and even a small medical room for any emergency that might occur. There were also many toys, from water skis and Jet Skis to snorkelling and sports fishing equipment, kayaks, WaveRunners and deep scuba-diving gear. Everything was available.
The interior of the yacht was classy style — all imported Italian marble, pale woods, soft beige leathers and flattering lighting.
A giant Buddha presided over the marble entryway to the master stateroom, leading into the interior, which was more like a luxury apartment. A huge California King bed dominated, covered in exotic fur throws, and there were rich fabrics on the walls with Oriental touches. En suite were his and hers marble bathrooms, a feature Aleksandr had insisted on for Bianca’s pleasure, plus the master had its own private terrace, lap pool and Jacuzzi, where Bianca could sunbathe and swim nude if she so desired.
Six other staterooms were also luxurious. However, nothing lived up to the master, which was located on the sky deck, allowing 90-degree spectacular views.
Aleksandr had ordered the yacht three years earlier, before meeting Bianca. Then Bianca had entered his life and he’d changed the plans and also the name: the yacht was now christened The Bianca. He hadn’t told her. It would be one of the many surprises he had in store for her.
During the course of construction at the Hakvoort shipyard in Holland, Aleksandr had visited several times to make sure everything was exactly as he’d envisioned. Later he’d worked with a team of talented interior designers to fulfil his vision of pure opulence.
The yacht was finished two months previously, and the Captain and crew had taken it for a series of sea trial runs, finally ending up in Cabo San Lucas, in Mexico, where the big trip would begin.
Aleksandr had decided that rather than taking his group on the usual South of France/Sardinia/Italy run, they would embark on a different kind of voyage. They would explore the beautiful Sea of Cortez and the various small Mexican seaside towns and deserted islands along the way.
The Sea of Cortez — sometimes known as the aquarium of the sea because of the bountiful plant species, different kinds of fish and other marine mammals — offered everything for a fantastic vacation. They would visit uninhabited white sand beaches, experience jungle adventures, and sail far away from the ties of civilization.
Aleksandr was determined that this would be a trip to remember.
To be doubly sure everything was to his liking, he’d made one final visit to speak with Captain Harry Dickson, a ruddy-faced Englishman in his fifties. There were to be no screw-ups, everything had to be perfect. Captain Dickson assured him that it would be.
Flying back to Moscow, Aleksandr was fully satisfied that the captain was a man in charge, and that none of his guests, especially Bianca, would be disappointed.
Aleksandr was proud to say that he had created the perfect yacht for the perfect woman.
* * *
Bianca felt like crap as she sat on the British Airways plane taking her to Moscow. She had a horrible feeling that at any moment she was going to throw up all over the man sitting next to her. It seemed as if the plane was flying one way, and she was flying in the opposite direction. Wow! Talk about the mother of all hangovers.
‘Excuse me, miss,’ her overweight neighbour suddenly leaned over and said.
Miss! Was he fucking kidding?
‘Yes,’ she said, backing away from his garlic breath, lowering her copy of OK! magazine. ‘What?’
‘Aren’t you that famous model?’
What a dumb question. Either he knows who I am or he doesn’t.
‘Um, yes, I am a model,’ she said grudgingly, glad that she’d worn her blackout shades so that no one could see her eyes.
‘The famous one?’ the man said. ‘I mean if you are, then I have to tell you that my daughter loves you, but er…’ he hesitated for a moment before continuing… ‘unfortunately I can’t seem to recall your name?’
Really? For God’s sake, get a life and leave me alone.
‘Bianca,’ she muttered, regretting that she hadn’t insisted that Aleksandr send his private plane for her.
‘Oh,’ the man said with a note of disappointment. ‘I thought it was Naomi.’
Please God save me from morons and tell this fucker to leave now!
‘Bianca,’ she repeated, unclipping her seat belt, abruptly getting up and heading for the galley, where Teddy, a languid gay cabin attendant, was discussing the size of Beyoncé’s thighs with an agitated blonde flight attendant who could think of nothing but her Russian boyfriend — the one with the massive appendage — who was waiting for her in a hotel room in Moscow.
‘You know what?’ Bianca said, with an I am very famous so kindly pay attention scowl. ‘The guy in the seat next to mine is really bothering me. Do you think you can move him somewhere else?’
Teddy had attitude. This passenger was interrupting his discourse on Beyoncé’s thighs, and he didn’t care who she was or what she wanted. Then all of a sudden he did care, because the moment she removed her ridiculously large sunglasses, he found himself staring into the feral cat-eyes of Bianca.
‘Oh my!’ he gasped. Why hadn’t anyone alerted him that the super-famous super-model was aboard? He glared at his lovesick co-worker and snapped, ‘What can we do, Heidi?’
Heidi managed to put on a suitably concerned expression. ‘We have a full flight,’ she said apologetically. ‘Would you like me to have a word with the gentleman?’
‘A word is not about to shut him up,’ Bianca said sharply. ‘The man’s a freaking pest.’
‘Oh dear!’ Teddy exclaimed, waving his arms in the air. ‘I can’t stand pests, or APs as I call them.’
Bianca frowned. ‘APs?’ she questioned.
‘Annoying passengers,’ Teddy responded. ‘We get them all the time.’
‘I could ask the lady sitting across the aisle if she’d swap seats with you,’ Heidi suggested. ‘That might solve our dilemma.’
‘And how can you guarantee that I won’t end up sitting next to another moron?’ Bianca demanded.
Heidi lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘The man in the window seat is a well-known English politician recently involved in a big scandal. I doubt if he’ll be interested in making conversation.’
‘Once they know it’s me, they’re all interested in making conversation,’ Bianca said with a weary sigh. Sometimes it was tough being famous and having to deal with the general public. ‘Only I guess anything is better than Mister Chatty,’ she added, putting her sunglasses back on.
‘I’ll go and see what I can do,’ Heidi said, while Teddy envisioned telling his hunky Polish partner all about his encounter with the very famous Bianca. Of course he would embellish, make out that they’d swapped email addresses and would definitely stay in touch.
‘You’re gorgeous,’ he managed, staring at her with envy and admiration. ‘More beautiful than your magazine covers.’
Bianca shrugged. ‘Good genes,’ she murmured, giving him hope that maybe they could become friends, that it wasn’t all simply a wild fantasy.
Heidi returned with the news that the woman in the aisle seat had agreed to move.
Bianca nodded. She was so used to getting her own way that it didn’t surprise her. And then, because she couldn’t help herself, she said, ‘And who exactly is the politician? And what was the scandal?’
Heidi and Teddy exchanged looks. Gossiping about the passengers was a definite rule-breaker, but since they were now both suitably impressed that they were conducting an actual conversation with Bianca, what the hell.
‘He texted pictures of his you know what to seven random women,’ Heidi whispered. ‘Sort of like that American politician last year — the Wiener man. Only what this one did was worse.’
‘Yes,’ said Teddy, happily joining in. ‘The pervert sent his texts from the men’s room in Parliament, and he perma-marked messages on his piece of man meat.’
‘Man meat?’ Bianca said, suppressing a giggle. ‘That’s a new one.’
Teddy lowered his voice even more. ‘Apparently he has a huge penis.’
Bianca squashed an urge to burst out laughing. What was up with these guys who thought that photographing their junk was a fine old idea? Were they the new-age flashers? Or merely horny old hound dogs with nothing better to do?
‘Hmm,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Well, as long as he’s not gonna show me the goods.’
‘I think we can guarantee that he’s learned his lesson,’ Teddy said, wondering if her small but quite perfect boobs were real.
‘Then let’s do it,’ Bianca decided. ‘Except one move from the asshole, and all bets are off.’
A few minutes later she was settled in her new seat. The politician — a thin-faced gentleman — was curled up in his window seat under a blanket, apparently asleep.
Bianca took out her iPod, tuned into Jay-Z and Kanye, leaned back and daydreamed about Aleksandr, the yacht, and her future.
Everything was set, and if all went according to plan, one of these days — in the not too distant future — she could become Mrs Aleksandr Kasianenko.
Frantically packing, throwing clothes into several open suitcases, Ashley didn’t know what to take because she didn’t know where they were going. She wished she did, for surely it made a difference? If it was the French Riviera or Sardinia, then only the fanciest of resort clothes would do. Chanel, Valentino, maybe even Dolce & Gabbana. However, for Greece or Sicily she would pack differently.
‘Take everything,’ Taye assured her. ‘Or take nothin’,’ he added with a ribald chuckle. ‘You’ll look like a right sexy old bird in nothin’.’
‘Old?’ Ashley said, turning on him, nostrils flaring. ‘I’m twenty-nine, for God’s sake. That’s hardly old.’
‘Just f-ing with you, toots,’ he said good-naturedly, sitting on the edge of the bed, watching her pack. ‘You’ll be the best-lookin’ girl on the boat. I’d bet me left ball on that.’
‘I wish we knew who was going,’ Ashley grumbled, throwing in a leopard-print bikini with a matching cover-up.
‘I thought you was gonna give Bianca a buzz, find out.’
‘I tried. She’s changed her number.’
‘Text her then,’ Taye suggested.
‘Aren’t you listening, Taye?’ Ashley said irritably. ‘I just told you — she’s changed her number.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Taye answered, wishing his wife would snap out of her never-ending bad mood. It was starting to piss him off.
Ashley held a skimpy white sundress up in front of her and turned to seek her husband’s approval. ‘You like?’ she questioned.
‘Here’s the deal, toots,’ Taye said, stretching. ‘I like anything you like,’
‘For God’s sake!’ Ashley snapped. ‘Have an opinion for once.’
‘Okay, okay, don’t get your knickers in a twist,’ Taye said quickly. ‘It’s nice. Virginal.’
‘Who wants to look bloody virginal?’ Ashley exploded. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
I could tell her, Taye thought. I could tell her that what’s wrong with me is an acute case of blue balls, and no amount of tossing myself off seems to solve the problem.
‘How do you wanna look then?’ he asked.
‘Sexy,’ Ashley said, pouting. ‘Like I used to before I had the twins and ruined my figure.’
For a second he thought she might burst into tears, and quick as a flash he was on his feet, holding her, comforting her, feeling her boobs pressing up against his chest and liking it a lot.
Then Mammoth intruded and she hurriedly shoved him away. ‘Is sex all you ever think about?’ she said crossly.
‘Maybe,’ he confessed. ‘’Cause y’know what, toots, we haven’t done it in weeks.’
‘Oh my God!’ she said, glaring daggers. ‘Are you counting now?’
‘Not counting,’ he said, careful not to piss her off further. ‘Just frustrated.’
‘The problem with you, Taye,’ she said grandly, ‘is that all you can think about is yourself.’
Trouble loomed. If Ashley got into one of her moods, there was no getting her out of it, and they were leaving on the trip tomorrow. He didn’t want to set her off. Maybe if he backed down he could bring her around — anything for a bit of peace.
‘Okay, okay,’ he said soothingly. ‘I’m sorry, luv. I get it — you’re stressed out. Me too. We both need this break.’
‘I know I certainly do,’ Ashley said pointedly.
They were saved by the twins who came bounding into the room, followed by a fussy Elise, who was quite enamoured with being in charge. She’d sent the nanny out on a series of errands, and was in full control.
Aimee and Wolf were looking picture perfect. For some reason known only to Elise, the two children were both dressed as if they were on their way to a party or a photo shoot.
‘Daddy!’ Aimee flung herself at Taye, wrapping her sturdy little body around his legs, clinging to him tightly. ‘Don’t want choo t’go’way!’
Wolf — a miniature version of his father — hovered in the doorway scowling and kicking at the rug.
‘It’s only for a week, baby girl,’ Taye assured Aimee. ‘And Daddy an’ Mummy are gonna buy you lots of presents.’
‘Don’t promise them that,’ Ashley hissed. ‘They’re spoiled enough as it is.’
‘I want a Ferrari,’ Wolf piped up.
‘An’ I want a Princess castle,’ Aimee said, joining in.
‘Only if you’re good, mind your manners, an’ listen to Grandma,’ Taye said.
‘Please do not call me Grandma,’ Elise said, throwing him a dirty look. ‘The children call me Moo-Moo. I’ve told you both dozens of times. Doesn’t anyone listen?’
‘Moo-Moo sounds like a cow,’ Ashley snickered.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ Elise objected. ‘It’s an adorable nickname, isn’t it, children?’
‘Want to get Princess Barbie too,’ Aimee announced.
‘You’re stupid,’ Wolf said with a great deal of authority. ‘All girls are stupid idiots.’
‘Don’t be rude to your sister,’ Ashley scolded.
‘Yes, you heard your mother — mind your manners, young man,’ Elise interjected.
‘Manners! Manners! Manners!’ Aimee chanted, sticking her tongue out at Wolf, who retaliated by forming a spitball and sending it in her direction.
‘Oh my God!’ Ashley screamed. ‘The two of you are disgusting! Take them away, Mother. I can’t stand to look at them.’
‘We’re going for dinner at Nando’s,’ Elise said, unphased by the children’s bad behaviour. ‘The little ones love the chicken burgers there.’
‘Why’re they so dressed up?’ Taye asked, attempting to disentangle Aimee from his legs.
‘In case they’re photographed,’ Elise responded matter of factly. ‘You never know.’
‘They only get photographed when they’re out with us,’ Ashley pointed out.
‘Not so,’ Elise argued. ‘Celebrities’ children are quite the vogue. Gwen Stefani’s little ones are almost as famous as their mother. And Suri Cruise is simply everywhere.’
‘That’s in America,’ Ashley stated.
‘It’s starting here too,’ Elise said. ‘And I’m sure you want Aimee and Wolf to look their adorable best.’
‘Whatever,’ Ashley muttered, more interested in getting back to her packing.
‘Okay then,’ Taye said, finally freeing himself from his little daughter’s clutches. ‘We’ll see you all later.’
Elise threw him a meaningful stare.
‘What?’ Taye said, realizing she wanted something.
‘Money,’ Elise said. ‘For dinner.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Taye said, digging in his pocket and coming up with a crumpled wad of notes. ‘How much do you need?’
‘Stop being a cheapskate and give her the lot,’ Ashley said, anxious to get rid of them.
‘Sure, toots,’ Taye said, handing over a bundle of cash.
The family departed, and once more Taye found himself alone with his bad-tempered wife. He couldn’t wait to get the hell out of England and into sunnier climes. Maybe a change of scenery would put Ashley in a better mood.
A man could only hope.
Xuan did not need to be entertained. After their dinner at the neighbourhood bistro, she took off on her own every morning, not returning until late at night. When Flynn suggested another dinner, she demurred, saying that she was finishing up work on a thesis she was writing about women who become prostitutes and their reasons why. He had plenty of work of his own to complete before they took off, so he didn’t mind. Although he couldn’t help thinking that Xuan was a difficult woman to figure out. Even though he had thought he knew her, he soon realized that he actually didn’t know her at all. She was an enigma.
The Kasianenko plan was to meet up in Cabo San Lucas at the boat, so he was surprised to get a call from Aleksandr himself.
‘I have to stop in Paris for a meeting tomorrow,’ Aleksandr said briskly. ‘So we will pick you up and we will fly to Cabo together.’
It was as if they’d spoken yesterday instead of almost two years previously.
‘Sounds good,’ Flynn responded, pleased with the change of plan. It certainly beat getting on and off a series of planes to reach their destination.
‘I’ll have my people call with the arrangements,’ Aleksandr stated.
And that was that. Aleksandr was a man of few words.
Later Flynn told Xuan the new plan and she nodded. ‘Perhaps I can write a piece about this man with his big plane, his super-models and his enormous yacht,’ she said coolly. ‘Does he give back to the world, or is everything simply a prize for him?’
‘No writing anything,’ Flynn warned. ‘Aleksandr’s one of the good guys.’
‘How do you know that?’ Xuan asked with a sceptical expression.
‘Because I do,’ he retorted, experiencing doubts about whether inviting Xuan on this journey was such a smart thing to do.
‘I will judge for myself,’ Xuan said, her beautiful face turning quite inscrutable.
‘Don’t embarrass me,’ he told her. ‘Just remember that Aleksandr is my friend.’
‘You think I would embarrass you?’ Xuan said, amusement lighting her eyes.
‘If you could,’ Flynn said. ‘Only I’m sure you wouldn’t do that to me, would you?’
‘We’ll see,’ Xuan answered mysteriously.
Shit! he thought. I’ve made a mistake. She’s going to try to discredit him because he’s rich and powerful.
Then he thought, Well, at least it won’t be boring. Let the games begin.
That night he had dinner alone at his neighbourhood bistro, feasting on all his favourite foods.
Mai attended to his table, and after he was finished he invited her to sit with him while he drank his coffee.
Mai accepted his invitation, and they chatted for a while. She was beguiling and sweet in a very French way.
It occurred to him that he had the apartment to himself tonight, for Xuan had informed him she would be staying with a friend, and would not be back until morning, so against his better judgment he ended up asking Mai if she would care to join him for a drink.
She accepted, and they strolled the three streets to his place.
When they arrived he poured her a Pernod on the rocks, and they sat around sipping their drinks and talking politics — which surprised him, because Mai was far more knowledgeable than he’d expected.
Eventually they ended up in bed; somehow it was inevitable.
Being with Mai was not the experience he’d thought it would be. Mai was no spider-monkey girl, she was a gentle lover with a warm and welcoming body. She smelled of lavender and roses, while the Pernod on her breath added a tangy sharpness to their kisses.
He found himself making love to her with more feeling than he’d known in a long time.
She murmured that she’d been wanting to sleep with him ever since he’d first come into her family’s restaurant, but she’d felt that he wasn’t at all interested.
He was taken by her lilting accent, the way she touched the back of his neck, the smoothness of her hands. Mai was the first woman in a long time who was actually getting through to him.
And did he want that?
Feelings only led to heartbreak.
Eventually they fell asleep, entwined in each other’s arms.
When he awoke at dawn, she was gone.
For a moment he was relieved, then upset. Had he not pleased her? Why would she walk out without so much as a goodbye?
Suddenly the realization struck him that he was actually experiencing real feelings.
It was a shocker.
* * *
Xuan arrived later in the morning carrying a shopping bag of warm baguettes, a jar of homemade jam, and a tub of thick creamy butter.
‘Breakfast,’ she announced, placing everything on the small kitchen counter. She paused for a moment and sniffed the air. ‘You had a woman here,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Will she be joining us for breakfast?’
‘No,’ Flynn said evenly. ‘She will not. How did you know?’
‘Ah… I smell her fragrance in the air. And I notice the smile on your face.’
‘I’m not smiling.’
‘Enjoy it for once.’
‘I am not smiling,’ he insisted.
Xuan shrugged. ‘Too bad she isn’t here. However, that means all the more for us.’
Flynn nodded, his mind elsewhere.
‘Can you make coffee while I take a shower?’ Xuan asked. ‘I was out on the streets all night. It was worth it because I gathered some very interesting material.’
‘I’m sure you did,’ Flynn said, finding himself thinking that he wished he’d invited Mai on the trip as opposed to Xuan. He was already looking forward to seeing the French woman again, which was a positive sign that maybe he was finally ready for more than a two- or three-week stand.
‘It’s good that you’re happy,’ Xuan said. ‘This woman, she pleased you?’
‘None of your fucking business,’ Flynn replied, trying to suppress the stupid grin that seemed to bubble up from nowhere.
‘Ah yes,’ Xuan said with an all-knowing smile. ‘She pleased you.’
‘Are you packed and ready to go?’ Flynn asked, quickly changing the subject. ‘We’re supposed to meet Aleksandr at the Plaza Athenée at three. Then we’ll head straight onto the airport.’
‘Me? Packed?’ Xuan said with a gesture of surprise. ‘I never unpacked. Or didn’t you notice?’
‘It’s nice to know that you can still summon up feelings,’ Xuan remarked. ‘Unfortunately for me, that is not possible.’
He didn’t need to ask why. Xuan had shared with him some of the horrors she’d experienced, and for her own peace of mind it was best not to dredge up the past.
‘I don’t know about you, but I’m starving,’ he said, keeping it casual. ‘Let’s eat.’
‘Ah yes,’ Xuan said. ‘Making love always gives one a hearty appetite.’
‘Will you stop?’ he said, slathering butter on a baguette.
Xuan allowed herself another mysterious smile. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Only I so enjoy seeing you like this.’
‘Like what?’ he said, attempting a frown.
‘Come on,’ he said, almost choking. ‘Let’s not get carried away.’
Yet he knew she was right. Maybe he was finally giving himself permission to move on.
And maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Even though he was a major movie star, and had been for many years, Cliff Baxter did not own a plane. It wasn’t necessary, because whenever he wished to go anywhere there was always a studio plane available for his use. All he had to do was ask. So he did, and a company jet was on hand to fly him and Lori to Cabo San Lucas the following day. In the meantime he had his valet pack his clothes, and he had Enid come to his house to go over any last-minute business.
Enid was her usual cryptic self. ‘I hope and pray you’re not planning any surprises for me on this little jaunt you’re taking off on,’ she said, giving him a piercing look.
‘Now what kind of surprises did you have in mind, Enid?’ Cliff asked, his eyes crinkling.
One thing about Cliff Baxter, he had not succumbed to the Botox and plastic surgery some of the older male stars had dipped into. He was of the George Clooney/Clint Eastwood school. You are what you are, take it or leave it. But he did look fabulous for a man approaching fifty; he had just the right amount of lines and wrinkles, and only a fleck of grey in his lustrous head of hair. Not to forget the devastating smile that had women across the world swooning.
‘The marriage surprise,’ Enid said bluntly. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’
Cliff roared with laughter, only perhaps his laughter wouldn’t have been quite so hearty if he’d known that Lori was lurking outside the door to his study, listening to every word.
‘Are you kidding me?’ he said. ‘You better than anyone should know how I feel about marriage. Not for me. Nope. No marriage. No whiny kids. Not anytime soon or indeed ever.’
‘That’s a relief,’ Enid said, ‘because Lori is not for you — yet she seems to have stayed around longer than the others. I really don’t understand why.’
‘They stay because I want them to stay,’ Cliff stated. ‘They leave when it suits me.’
Enid could certainly believe that. ‘And this one?’ she asked.
‘Between us?’ Cliff said, giving her one of his serious looks.
‘No, Cliff,’ Enid said with a sarcastic edge. ‘I plan on selling everything you tell me to the tabloids.’
‘In that case, I should be truthful with you.’
‘Okay, here’s the scoop — the truth is that Lori’s sell-by date is almost up.’
Hovering in the hallway, Lori could not believe what she was hearing. Sell-by date. Fucking sell-by date. What did he think she was, a tub of yogurt on the supermarket shelf?
Bastard! Prick! How could he be so cavalier about their relationship? It hurt, it really hurt.
She stood there fighting back angry tears, suppressing a burning desire to march into the room and tell him exactly what she thought of him.
But forewarned was forearmed, and Lori began to formulate a plan.
* * *
Dinner was a casual affair at a mega-producer’s Bel Air mansion. Cliff and the producer had worked together on several movies and were planning a future franchise starring a renegade ex-cop detective — a character Cliff was dying to play. He spoke about the detective all the time as if he was a real person.
Lori was sick of hearing about his upcoming movie. If there wasn’t a role in it for her, why would she even be remotely interested?
The two men were friends from way back. They had a wish-list of leading ladies — everyone from Angelina Jolie to Scarlett Johansson.
‘What about me?’ Lori wanted to yell. ‘How about giving me a chance?’
Reality check. She knew that was not about to happen, especially now with her exit visa waiting to be stamped.
She wondered how Cliff would deal with getting rid of her. Perhaps he’d manufacture a big row — bad enough that she’d be forced to walk. Hmm… she was smart enough to realize that it takes two to make an argument work, and now that she was aware of the situation there was no way she’d play into that scenario.
Maybe he’d be brutally honest and simply tell her that it wasn’t working for him.
Did that mean a severance package? Money and an apartment?
She felt like calling a couple of his exes and checking out the deal.
Meanwhile, they were still going on the trip, so that was something. Could she salvage their relationship? It was possible.
‘You’re looking very girlish tonight,’ said the producer’s wife — a Hollywood social blonde with large over-plumped lips and an unsatisfied expression. ‘I simply adore your dress — Kitson’s?’
No. Target, Lori was tempted to reply. It cost me twenty-five bucks as opposed to the two hundred and twenty it would’ve been at Kitson’s. And that’s a conservative estimate.
‘The ruffles are such fun,’ Producer’s Wife continued. Then without taking a beat she added sotto voce, ‘How are things going between you and Cliff?’
Did she know something? Had Cliff confided in his producer friend?
All the wives were insanely jealous of her because they all secretly lusted after a piece of the famous Cliff Baxter cock. Only she was the one getting it and they weren’t.
Too bad, bitches.
‘Actually,’ Lori answered evenly, ‘things couldn’t be better. Cliff is such a sweetheart, so generous and thoughtful.’ A pause, then — ‘Why would you ask something like that?’
Producer’s Wife was flustered, but only for a moment. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘Cliff does have a reputation for moving on.’ A slight pause. ‘Of course we all love him dearly, and we’d like nothing better than to see him settle down, only you know that our Cliff is totally anti-marriage.’
Yes, I do know, bitch. Thank you for reminding me.
‘That’s why we’re so good together,’ Lori said sweetly. ‘’Cause I’m too young to even consider marriage. I plan on having a career first, marriage much, much later.’ Make sure you tell that to your horny balding husband so he can relay the message to my boyfriend.
‘Oh,’ Producer’s Wife said, pursing her wormy lips. ‘Then you are indeed the perfect girl for Cliff.’
Across the room, Cliff and the producer were discussing the advantages of shooting in New York as opposed to L.A. ‘Better tax breaks in New York,’ the producer proclaimed, adding with a ribald chuckle, ‘and better strip clubs.’
Cliff shook his head. ‘Can’t show my face at a strip club,’ he said. ‘It’d be all over the Internet the next day. Who needs that shit?’
‘Why should you care? You’re not married.’
‘It’s not right for my image. Besides, I have a girlfriend.’
The producer glanced across the room. ‘How’s it hangin’ with Lori?’ he asked. ‘Seems like she’s a keeper. She’s stayed around longer than most.’
Cliff nodded. His private life was all his, and only Enid was privy to certain information. However, that didn’t mean he couldn’t reveal a little something. ‘Lori gives the best head I’ve ever had,’ he confided, knowing it would drive his friend crazy. ‘Better than a porn star any day.’
The producer’s mouth quivered slightly as he digested the information. It wasn’t enough that Cliff Baxter was a fucking matinée idol, and single too. Now he had a girlfriend who gave the greatest blow-jobs ever. Sometimes life just wasn’t fair.
Later, the producer and his wife were getting ready to show a first-run movie in their private home theatre.
Cliff decided they wouldn’t stay. ‘We’re leaving early tomorrow,’ he explained, then winking at the producer he added, ‘Gotta take care of a couple of things before bed.’
The producer stared hungrily at Lori before moving in for a good-night hug, while the producer’s wife managed to kiss Cliff full on his lips.
In the Bentley on the way home, Cliff suggested to Lori that she might like to give him head while he was driving.
‘What if we’re pulled over?’ she asked, thinking of the consequences.
‘It’ll be worth it,’ he replied, obviously in the mood for his own particular style of lap dance.
Lori gritted her teeth and went to work, her head in his lap as he negotiated the winding roads of Bel Air, one hand on the steering wheel, the other making sure she stayed down.
Lori gave it her best shot, and he came within minutes.
Let’s see if you can find a new girlfriend who’ll tend to your needs the way I do, she thought. Lotsa luck, Mister movie star. You’re gonna find me harder to replace than you can possibly imagine.
Because Suga had a concert in Mexico City, Luca decided it would be supportive and maybe even fun to attend her show before flying onto Cabo San Lucas the following day.
It was an arrangement that did not sit well with Jeromy. Watching Suga perform was akin to having a thousand sharp knives stuck in his eyes. The woman pranced across the stage like an over-sized Barbie doll in ridiculous outfits that she obviously considered insanely sexy. They were insane all right, suitable only for a five foot ten inch, skinny, flat-chested model — not a short, overweight, fifty-something diva, with big hair, huge bosoms, and an abundance of makeup.
The fans who crowded the arena obviously appreciated her over-the-topness. Jeromy certainly didn’t; her voice sent shivers up his spine, and not in a pleasant way.
The most excruciating part of the evening was when she dragged Luca up on stage with her, and the crowd erupted into a frenzy of whoops, screams and orgasmic sighs at the sight of their idol.
Luca. Jeromy’s blond Latin god. On stage with the she-wolf. Not a pretty sight. Jeromy was mortified that he had to witness such a scene.
Afterwards there were celebratory drinks in Suga’s overcrowded dressing room. Hangers-on abounded. Young fans, old fans, managers, promoters, a couple of photographers.
Jeromy slid into a corner and stayed there. He was an observer at a freak show, certainly not a participant.
Luca didn’t seem to notice or care about his lack of interest, he was too busy making sure that Suga received the full dazzle of his attention.
Damn the woman! The more time Jeromy spent in her company, the more he loathed her. She was easy to hate.
Looking around, he soon made eye-contact with one of Suga’s back-up dancers, a tall thin man clad in ass-baring leather pants, his head shaved. Jeromy had noticed him on stage, and now, in close proximity, he felt that old familiar stirring. They continued making eye-contact, until with a slight tilt of his eyebrow, Jeromy indicated the door.
Luca was still busy playing nice with Suga and did not notice Jeromy slipping out, nor the dancer following close behind him.
Without exchanging a word, they both headed for the men’s room where they crowded into a stall together.
Jeromy reached out and touched the man’s shaven head while feverishly unzipping his own pants.
The dancer fell to his knees and accepted Jeromy’s engorged cock into his mouth.
Still no words were spoken.
The sexual excitement was intense as Jeromy realized that at any moment they could be discovered.
He shuddered out an orgasm, hurriedly stuffed his member back into his pants, and re-joined the dressing-room group.
Ten minutes later Luca finally remembered he was alive, and approached him.
‘You getting bored?’ Luca asked.
Getting bored! What planet did Luca live on?
‘I’m perfectly fine,’ Jeromy said, noticing his partner in sex across the crowded room. ‘Only since we have such an early flight tomorrow, perhaps we should think about leaving.’
‘Sure,’ Luca agreed. ‘I’ll go say goodbye to Suga. Come with, she adores you.’
Jeromy followed Luca across the room to where Suga held court. Her elaborate eye makeup was smudged, and her lip-gloss caked on her obviously enhanced lips. Vagina lips, Jeromy thought to himself. Big old vagina lips.
‘Thank you for coming,’ Suga said to Jeromy, all fake warmth and cloying perfume.
Ah, she should only know…
‘It was my pleasure,’ Jeromy lied. ‘And you were…’ he searched for the right word, ‘amazing.’
‘Of course,’ Suga said, adding a rather grand — ‘I never let my fans down.’ Then dismissing him, because she was well aware he didn’t mean a word he said, she turned to Luca and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him full on the lips and whispering something in Spanish in his ear.
Jeromy did not speak Spanish. His young lover spoke perfect English so there had never been the need to learn. Right now he wished he knew what the annoying cow had said. English/Spanish, it didn’t matter. It was one of those intimate whispers that put a big smile on his young lover’s handsome face.
Dammit. Why did the fat bitch cast such a spell over Luca? It had to be broken, that was for sure. And he was the one to do it.
Sierra dreaded the forthcoming trip. She loathed the thought of being stuck in a cabin on a boat — however luxurious — with Hammond in close proximity. It wasn’t as if she even knew Aleksandr Kasianenko. She’d met him once — briefly — at a political event in Washington. They’d exchanged pleasantries for a quick moment in time, and that was it. Hammond had then proceeded to pursue him like a dog chasing a particularly juicy bone.
It was the night before their departure, and as usual Hammond was working late. Earlier in the day they’d attended a lunch together, and she’d acted as the perfect political wife in a St John suit, her auburn hair neatly coiffed, smile firmly in place. Oh yes, she would make an outstanding First Lady, and didn’t Hammond know it. That’s the only reason he wanted her. She understood that, and it sent chills down her spine.
Hammond had a dream. And that dream was to be standing on the steps of the White House, with her on his arm.
May I present President Hammond Patterson, and his lovely wife, Sierra Kathleen Snow Patterson.
The perfect wife. The perfect husband. What a couple. They would put the Kennedys to shame.
Or so Hammond thought.
Sierra was confident that day would never come. Someone would eventually expose Hammond for the phony he was. Maybe it would be her. But she didn’t think so, she couldn’t risk it.
No. She had to depend on someone else to take him down.
And who that someone was, she didn’t yet know.
* * *
‘Am I working you too hard?’ Hammond enquired, pressing his fingers together as Skylar entered his office carrying a stack of papers.
‘Not at all, Senator,’ Skylar said, quite pleased with herself, because out of all the interns she was obviously his favourite. This was the fourth night in a row he’d asked her to work late. ‘I’m here to be of service.’
Indeed you are, Hammond thought. And tonight I’m going to test that theory out.
‘How’s that boyfriend of yours?’ he asked.
‘Oh, y’know,’ Skylar said, gesturing vaguely with her left hand.
‘Together? Not together?’ Hammond pressed.
‘We… uh… had a bit of a fight.’
‘I’m not sure,’ Skylar confessed. ‘Sometimes he seems so… inexperienced.’
Hammond jumped at the opening. ‘Sexually?’ he questioned, standing up from behind his desk.
Skylar’s face reddened.
‘Don’t be embarrassed,’ Hammond continued, walking around the desk towards her. ‘I told you before, I discuss everything with my teenage daughter. Sex… well naturally, because boys are inexperienced. They mature much later than girls, therefore they have no idea how to treat a woman.’ A long meaningful pause. ‘And that’s what you are, Skylar — a young beautiful woman.’
Skylar blushed beet red. Such a compliment! From such an important man! That very morning, her brother had called her a fat-ass, and her mom had told her to clean up her room and stop acting like a twelve-year-old.
They should only know that the esteemed Senator had just called her a beautiful woman. Take that, Mom. A woman. Not a freaking twelve-year-old.
‘Thank you, Senator,’ she murmured.
He moved closer to her, placing both his hands on her shoulders.
She didn’t dare move. He reminded her of a teacher she’d had in high school. Older, nice-looking in a very buttoned-up all-American way.
He had lovely brown eyes. Honest eyes. Eyes she could trust.
He lowered his voice and said, ‘Did you hear what I told you, Skylar? You are very beautiful.’
Hammond had learned over the years that tell any woman — old or young — that they are beautiful, and be they rabid dog or true beauty, they always believed you. There were no exceptions.
‘Uh… yes… uh… thank you,’ Skylar muttered, flattered yet at the same time wishing he’d remove his hands from her shoulders, as it was creeping her out. She remembered hearing stories in history class about an intern at the White House way back when Bill Clinton was President — apparently he’d come on to the intern or vice-versa, Skylar couldn’t remember which, but whatever it was, it had almost gotten him impeached. Not that she thought Senator Patterson was about to do anything, but still — she wished he’d remove his hands.
He moved a tad closer.
He slid his hands down until they cupped both her breasts.
Skylar was mortified. This couldn’t be happening. The Senator was a married man. She was a teenager and he had to be somewhere in his late thirties. This wasn’t right.
She froze, unable to move.
‘You have beautiful breasts,’ he said. ‘I noticed them the first time I saw you.’
She opened her mouth to object, but nothing came out.
He manoeuvred his hands under her sweater and expertly lifted her bra so that it rested above her breasts. Then his fingers began tweaking her nipples.
She was so confused, fully aware that she should stop him. But suddenly new feelings began flooding her body. The way he was touching her was making her feel excited and breathless. The Senator’s touch was so different from the furtive fumblings of her on/off again boyfriend whom she’d never allowed beyond second base — the reason they were always fighting.
‘Do you like this?’ the Senator questioned, circling her nipples with his fingertips. ‘Does it make you excited?’
She managed a strangled yes, imagining her mom’s face if her mom ever found out.
The Senator raised her sweater, and bent his head to suck on one of her erect nipples. He stopped for just a moment to ask, ‘And this?’
Her throat was dry, and she knew she should object, only the way he was making her feel was too good — she didn’t want him to stop what he was doing. Never. Ever.
Hammond experienced a moment of triumph. Skylar was primed. Enough action on big-breasted girls and they were all yours. Nothing like a little nipple-play to get them creamed up and ready to go. Hammond knew this for sure.
‘I cannot resist you,’ he crooned, seducing her with his words. ‘You’re like a delicious candy. Your breasts are incredible.’
Compliments were an important part of the initial seduction. Compliments and foreplay — a winning combination.
* * *
Sierra checked her watch. It was late and still no sign of Hammond. She ate a solitary dinner without him and finally retired to bed.
Tomorrow they would be on their way, and who knew what would happen?
Maybe she could push him overboard in the middle of the night, and then her problems would be over.
She smiled grimly to herself.
‘I dunno what you’re talking about,’ the girl muttered, sitting stiffly in a chair in the living room of the house she shared with her boyfriend in Arizona.
‘No?’ Sergei Zukov questioned, a nerve in his left cheek twitching out of control. He stood in front of her, angry and disgusted that she was trying to deny who she was. They’d met only once before when Boris had taken her to a cousin’s wedding in Moscow. Five long years ago. She’d had long black hair then and dressed like a Goth. He remembered asking Boris what he was doing with such an odd creature. Boris had chuckled and muttered something about getting off on strange-looking women. After Boris’s death, Sergei had discovered the girl was a heroin addict, and unbeknownst to Boris had been selling information about him to feed her habit. Boris had always gone for females who walked a dangerous path, and it had eventually turned out to be his downfall.
Now the girl had cropped bleached hair, wore denim shorts, a tank top, and a long green cardigan. She had thin lips, bad skin, and spoke with a fake American accent.
It was her, no doubt about it.
Sergei hated the sight of her.
‘So what you are telling me is that your name is not Nona, and that you never lived with my brother in Moscow?’ he said, circling her chair. ‘Is that correct?’
She scowled at him, vigorously shaking her head. ‘My name’s Margie,’ she spat. ‘I’m an American citizen, an’ I know my rights, so get the fuck outta my house.’
He’d arrived at the house ten minutes earlier. She’d opened the door, thinking it was a delivery. He’d had two of his men with him, and they’d grabbed her and placed her in the chair like a puppet. She hadn’t screamed, instead she’d glared wilfully at him, her eyes full of hatred. She knew why he was there.
‘I am Boris’s brother,’ he’d said. ‘And you are Nona.’
She’d said nothing.
‘You know why I am here, don’t you?’ he’d continued. ‘I can see it in your face.’
That’s when she’d denied knowing what he was talking about.
‘My husband will be home soon,’ she said, her eyes darting furtively towards the door. ‘He has a gun, and he’s not afraid to use it.’
‘The man you live with is not your husband and you are not Margie,’ Sergei stated coldly.
‘Screw you,’ she said in a low angry voice. ‘You don’t scare me, so like I said — get the fuck out.’
‘I will when I recover the money you stole, and the information I require,’ Sergei said, quite calm apart from the giveaway muscle twitch in his left cheek.
‘Whistle for it, asshole,’ she said, full of defiance. ‘The money’s long gone.’
Sergei was a patient man when he had to be; however, he was not about to play word games with this tough bitch all day.
It took two hours, but after a certain amount of physical persuasion she’d finally cracked, revealing that she’d sold information to an American journalist about Boris’s plans to kidnap one of Aleksandr Kasianenko’s daughters, and that the journalist must have gone straight to Kasianenko with the information, for twenty-four hours later Boris was dead and Nona had taken flight, afraid for her own life.
Sergei was finally satisfied, for he now had everything he needed.
The fat cat billionaire, Aleksandr Kasianenko, was the man responsible for his brother’s death.
It was enough knowledge to set Sergei on a vengeful path.
Sitting next to Aleksandr on his plane, Bianca regaled her boyfriend with tales of her commercial flight to Moscow and the many indignities she’d had to endure. ‘I should’ve stayed in Paris,’ she said with a rueful laugh. ‘’Cause here I am, twenty-four hours later, on my way back to the city I only just left! This is crazy time! And like I said — I flew commercial. What a nightmare! I don’t know how people do it. It’s so inconvenient.’
Aleksandr seemed preoccupied, and although she was making light of it, Bianca was not thrilled that she’d traipsed all the way to Moscow to find him being quite distant. He’d been immersed in business meetings and she’d hardly seen him. Now they were stopping off in Paris to pick up friends of his she’d never met. This wasn’t exactly how she’d expected her big birthday trip to start off.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked Aleksandr, leaning closer to him. ‘You seem like you’ve got something on your mind.’
‘Something on my mind,’ he repeated, turning and fixing her with a steady gaze.
‘That’s what I said.’
‘And how was your previous trip to Paris?’ he enquired. ‘Tell me more.’
‘I told you everything,’ she said, wondering why he was suddenly so interested. ‘Dinner with friends, all delightfully gay, so you would’ve hated it. We had a ton of laughs, and I missed you madly — I always do when we’re apart.’
‘My wife’s lawyer seems to be under a different impression,’ Aleksandr said evenly, tapping his fingers on the side of his seat.
‘Excuse me?’ Bianca said, frowning. ‘What’s your wife’s lawyer got to do with anything?’
‘He sent me over some very interesting print-outs from various Internet sites.’
Aleksandr picked up his briefcase, opened it and laid out various photos of Bianca dancing the night away, grinding on a stripper pole and — oh, the humiliation — crotch shots that clearly showed she was not wearing underwear.
‘Oh crap!’ she gasped, reviewing the photos. ‘I… I don’t get it.’
‘Neither do I,’ Aleksandr said, his face grave. ‘You surely understand that I am going through an extremely difficult divorce, and visitation rights with my daughters are of paramount importance to me. Now my wife is saying she will not allow our children to be around such a woman of low character.’
‘Low character!’ Bianca exclaimed, her humiliation turning to anger. ‘Low fucking character? How dare she! It wasn’t as if I was posing for those shots. Somebody took them without my knowledge.’
‘However, you were in a club,’ Aleksandr said accusingly. ‘You were dancing on a pole like a cheap stripper. And you were not wearing underwear.’
‘Something you’ve never complained about before.’
Aleksandr’s face darkened. ‘Do not forget that you are my woman, Bianca. Your behaviour reflects on me, and this kind of behaviour goes beyond disrespectful.’
‘Your woman!’ Bianca burst out, stunned that Aleksandr was carrying on as if she was his personal property. He was revealing a side of himself she’d never seen before, and she didn’t like it. ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ she demanded, her temper rising. ‘An Arab with a fucking harem? ’Cause baby, I ain’t into that game.’
‘Bianca,’ Aleksandr said, fixing her with another steady gaze. ‘This is serious.’
‘Well fuck serious,’ she said, still full of anger. ‘Nobody tells me what I can and cannot do. I’m sorry I got photographed, but it comes with the fucking territory of being a star, you should know that.’
Their first fight. They glared at each other, neither prepared to back down.
‘I loathe it when you swear,’ Aleksandr said coldly. ‘It’s unfeminine. It does not become you.’
‘Really?’ Bianca retorted, furious at the way he was speaking to her.
‘It makes you sound common, the words of a streetwalker.’
‘And I bet you’ve had a few of those,’ Bianca snapped, unable to help herself.
‘Excuse me, Mr Kasianenko,’ Olga, his personal flight attendant, said, hovering because she really didn’t want to interrupt. ‘The pilot has asked that you fasten your seat belts in preparation for our landing.’
‘Thank you, Olga,’ Aleksandr said with a curt nod.
Bianca turned away from him and grappled with her seat belt. She was seething. This was some shitty start to what was supposed to be a memorable trip.
It suddenly occurred to her that maybe she was making a big mistake.
* * *
Flying commercial was not Ashley’s favourite thing to do. Going through Heathrow airport was inconvenient to say the least. Everyone wanted Taye’s autograph, and there was no escaping the hordes of paparazzi who trailed them all the way until they passed through security.
Some of the paparazzi shouted mean things at her. ‘Give us a smile, luv, you always look so bloody miserable.’ ‘Taye gettin’ a legover with any other bird?’ ‘C’mon, Ashley, try not to look as if you’re constipated!’
Rude bastards. She hated them all.
It wasn’t her fault that Taye always managed a big shit-eating grin. She simply couldn’t do it. He was Mister Personality. She was not. The truth was that she wasn’t miserable, merely cool. Better to look cool than to look like a fool.
Once through security things calmed down, although she wasn’t too happy about having to remove her shoes, her jacket and all her jewelry as they passed through the scanner. Damn, why didn’t Taye get priority treatment? He was a British football hero, a bona fide star, and stars weren’t meant to suffer the indignities of ordinary people.
Sometimes she wondered if it was because he was black that he didn’t get the Beckham treatment.
Hmm… food for thought.
Sitting in the VIP lounge, Taye chatted amiably with other passengers. Ashley settled herself at a table, sipping an early-morning coffee while leafing through a copy of Hello magazine, pausing to study a photo of herself at a fashion event in an extremely chic outfit. She was pleased with the image, pleased enough to tear the page out of the magazine and stash it in her Birkin handbag.
Taye was dragging over someone to introduce to her, which was annoying because she wasn’t in the mood for company. She soon perked up though when she realized it was the American movie star, Billy Melina, and he was smokin’ hot.
Ashley put on her animated face and began plying Billy with questions about his next movie and where he was flying to. Billy was totally charming in an all-American way, and when he left, Ashley fantasized about what it would be like to be married to an actual movie star. A handsome movie star who looked exactly like Billy Melina. So hot and sexy, and he’d just finished making a movie with Cliff Baxter — another of her crushes.
Idly she wondered what Billy was like in bed…
‘What you thinkin’, luv?’ Taye asked.
‘Oh,’ she said cheekily, ‘I was thinking about what you’re gonna do to me once you get me on that boat.’ Her husband was right, they hadn’t had sex in a while, and suddenly she was experiencing quite a tingle.
‘You were?’ Taye said, startled.
‘Boats are sexy, aren’t they?’ Ashley said, tugging on his arm.
Christ! Was his wife finally feeling horny?
‘Dead sexy,’ he managed. ‘Let’s put it this way, toots. You an’ I are gonna rock the boat from stem to stern. Be prepared.’
She smiled, glanced down and noticed the erection growing in his pants.
Taye was so damn randy, and he was all hers.
* * *
In the large black SUV on their way to the airport, Lori was on her best behaviour. Cliff was thinking of dumping her, and she was having none of it. She was determined to make him see the error of his ways. A perfect blow-job in the car while he was driving was merely the beginning of all the exciting things she had in store for him. Their sex-life was about to heat up. On their upcoming trip she had plans to take it to an entirely new level.
Yes, Cliff Baxter was about to see a whole other side of her. By the time she was finished with him, he’d be begging her to stay.
* * *
Cabo San Lucas was at its glorious shimmering best. The sun was shining, palm trees swaying, a vacation atmosphere prevailed.
Luca and Jeromy were staying overnight with the Luttmans, acquaintances who owned a magnificent villa overlooking the bay. The Luttmans were a New York power couple whom they’d met on the social circuit several times, and Jeromy had been desperately trying to cultivate them. So when the yacht trip had come about, Jeromy had quickly discovered the Luttmans would be in residence at their vacation home, and he’d suggested to Luca that they might stay the night. Luca had agreed, and the Luttmans had been thrilled to say yes.
Lanita Luttman, a former showgirl, jewelry designer and well-known lesbian, was a true social butterfly. And her husband, Sydney, an absurdly rich investment banker and well-known homosexual, couldn’t have been happier to welcome Luca and his English partner into their home.
A uniformed driver and two eager assistants met Luca and Jeromy at the airport and whisked them to the gated villa where Lanita waited to greet them wearing a flowing purple caftan and multiple strands of long diamond necklaces. A flamboyant woman, she had dyed black hair, turquoise contact lenses, and was decidedly overweight.
Servants abounded. Lanita snapped her fingers and trays of canapés and Bellinis appeared in the hands of ridiculously handsome young waiters clad in tight shorts, with only colourful braces covering their well-defined abs and chests.
Jeromy was in heaven. He glanced around and wished that they were spending more than one night here; he could soon get very used to this kind of life.
Luca was already admiring Lanita’s array of sparkling necklaces, while various maids and housekeepers peered from the windows and behind the bushes, desperate to get a peek at their idol — the fabulous Luca Perez.
Ah… so gorgeous, so blond — and what a voice! They were all in a state of hero-worship.
Meanwhile Jeromy was in his element. Who would have thought that his life would have taken such an amazing turn? The London gays in high places had written him off when he’d turned forty and didn’t have a permanent boyfriend, let alone a successful business. However, since hooking up with Luca, and bringing Ashley in, he’d managed to achieve it all. With Luca’s backing and connections and Taye’s investment, his design business had taken off, and now here he was in Cabo San Lucas with one of the richest couples in America, about to set off on an exclusive trip with a Russian oligarch and his super-model girlfriend.
Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.
* * *
Hammond climbed into the marital bed stinking of sex.
Sierra cowed on her side of the bed pretending to be asleep. The bastard hadn’t even bothered to wash the smell of another woman off his body.
Sierra continued to wonder how she’d allowed herself to sink to such a low point in her life.
Because of Hammond’s diabolical threats, that’s how. Threats she had no doubt he would manage — somehow or other — to carry out.
You have to get out of this marriage! a voice screamed in her head.
I can’t, another voice replied. I don’t have the courage.
Once she would have fought back, stood up for herself. Only now she couldn’t summon the strength. Playing along was the only way to go.
She closed her eyes tightly shut and prayed for oblivion.
This was her life, and there was nothing she could do about it.
As Flynn and Xuan entered the spacious lobby of the Plaza Athenée Hotel, Aleksandr rose to his feet and enveloped Flynn in a hearty bear hug. ‘It is great to see you, my friend,’ he said warmly. ‘It has been far too long. I have missed your company.’
Flynn extracted himself and introduced Xuan. Aleksandr gave her an appraising once-over and nodded approvingly. ‘You have done well,’ he said.
Flynn realized that he had probably failed to make it clear that he and Xuan were not a couple, merely platonic friends.
Hmm… he’d have to deal with that.
Xuan proffered her hand, gave Aleksandr a firm handshake and a steady gaze. ‘I have heard much about you,’ she said briskly. ‘And your lady too. Where is she?’
Nothing like getting straight to the point, Flynn thought. But he had to admit he’d been thinking the same thing. Aleksandr appeared to be by himself, apart from a burly bodyguard hovering a few feet away. Where was the extraordinary Bianca?
‘My lady is waiting for us on my plane,’ Aleksandr said. ‘She did not feel like coming into the city.’
He omitted to mention that Bianca had refused to accompany him. She was in full sulk and had locked herself in the bedroom on the plane, much to Aleksandr’s chagrin. He was hoping that by the time they got back she would have had time to think things through and realize that he was right.
‘It’s great to see you too,’ Flynn said. ‘Quite a surprise hearing from you, though I can assure you it was a welcome one. Your timing was right on — I needed a break.’
‘Sit,’ Aleksandr said, indicating a comfortable banquette. ‘We take tea before we return to the plane.’
‘How very civilized,’ Xuan murmured, sitting down. Aleksandr sat himself beside her, while Flynn settled on an upholstered chair opposite them.
‘Tell me, Mr Kasianenko,’ Xuan said, ‘do you use your plane for humanitarian efforts, or is it merely for your own convenience?’
Aleksandr gave her a long penetrating stare. ‘So personal, so soon,’ he said at last, sounding vaguely amused. ‘Please, do call me Aleksandr, there is no need to be so formal.’
‘Aleksandr it is,’ Xuan said, twisting a thin gold bangle on her delicate wrist. ‘You haven’t answered my question.’
Oh shit, Flynn thought. She’s determined to score points and she’s doing it with the wrong guy.
But Aleksandr didn’t seem to mind. ‘You tell me about your humanitarian efforts, and I’ll tell you about mine,’ he said, still sounding amused.
Flynn quickly interjected. ‘Let’s get into it later,’ he said, determined to avert trouble, because once Xuan got going she really got going. ‘I’ve heard a rumour you’re in talks to buy an English football team,’ he continued. ‘Now that’s what I’m interested in hearing. Want to tell me all about it?’
* * *
‘Didja fancy him then?’ Taye asked, snuggling close to his wife on their British airways flight to L.A. where they were to make a connection to Cabo San Lucas.
‘Fancy who?’ questioned Ashley, all wide-eyed and giggly because she’d been taking full advantage of the free champagne.
‘You know who,’ Taye teased. ‘That American movie-star bloke.’
‘Dunno what you’re talkin’ about,’ Ashley said, letting forth a most unladylike hiccough.
‘Oh him,’ Ashley said dismissively. ‘He’s not all that.’
‘Thought you fancied him.’
‘Not me,’ she said innocently.
‘Is that so?’
‘Yes, Taye,’ she said, fluffing out her blond curls. ‘He isn’t my type.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
‘Are you?’ she said coyly.
‘You bet your pretty little arse,’ Taye said, reaching over for a quick grope of her left breast, pleased to hear that she didn’t fancy the movie star. ‘Can’t wait to get you on the boat,’ he added. ‘We’re gonna have a fine old time.’
‘Stop feeling me up,’ she giggled. ‘Try to be patient for once.’
‘Can’t do it, toots, I’m too turned on.’
‘At least wait until the cabin lights are off,’ she insisted, impulsively running her hands over his shaved head, something she only did when she was feeling sexy.
Bloody Hell! Taye thought. It looked like little wifey was letting her guard down and he was about to get lucky.
Mile-high Club, here I come!
* * *
To Flynn’s surprise, Aleksandr and Xuan appeared to hit it off. Flynn had expected fireworks, but all he got was a heated discussion between the two of them about why politicians were not doing enough to end wars, world hunger, atrocities, inhumane treatment of prisoners and urban crime.
It turned out that Aleksandr was quite a do-gooder in his own way. He wasn’t a boastful man, but Xuan managed to pry all kinds of information out of him. She soon discovered that he supported several charitable institutions, that he’d financed a school for uneducated teenagers in the Ukraine, and that on occasion he did indeed use his plane to transport food and supplies to disaster areas.
Flynn had not been aware of any of this. It made him respect Aleksandr a hell of a lot more. The man wasn’t simply a rich tycoon looking to sleep with beautiful models and throw decadent parties. He was the real deal — a billionaire with a social conscience. Surprising. Refreshing.
Xuan had her own particular way of making people talk, and by the time they’d had tea in the lobby of the Plaza Athenée and then helicoptered to the airport, she and Aleksandr were carrying on like old friends.
Bianca — not so much. She greeted them with a frosty demeanour as they boarded the plane, practically ignoring Aleksandr when he attempted to give her a kiss. She hurriedly turned away from him, announced that she had a killer of a headache and flounced off into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
‘Sorry about that,’ Aleksandr said, obviously uncomfortable. ‘Bianca has been working too hard lately.’
‘Really?’ Xuan said with a sarcastic edge. ‘Posing for pretty photographs all day long must be extremely tiring.’
Flynn threw her a warning look, which she ignored. Xuan was not one to back down; like it or not she always said what was on her mind.
Aleksandr appeared unphased. He ordered shots of vodka and a large silver bowl piled high with caviar. ‘We shall drink,’ he announced. ‘And we shall eat. Bianca will feel better later. You will see.’
* * *
The studio corporate jet was luxurious by anyone’s standards. Cliff joked with the two attractive flight attendants, and even visited the pilots before take-off for a manly chat. Everyone loved Cliff Baxter, he was an American classic, handsome, smooth and a damn fine actor. His movies made billions worldwide and why not? He always gave his adoring public exactly what they wanted.
‘This is quite an adventure for you,’ he informed Lori as they settled into their seats. ‘One I hope you’ll always remember.’
You patronizing shit, she thought, remaining calm on the outside, furious on the inside. She knew exactly how Cliff wanted her to behave. He required her to be the grateful girlfriend who was so very lucky to be given the opportunity to go on such a fabulous trip with her famous movie-star boyfriend. Well, screw him. She could play the crap out of that role.
‘How could I not be excited?’ she said, all bright-eyed and eager, just the way he expected her to be. ‘Thank you so much, Cliff, for including me.’
‘That’s okay, sweetie,’ he said, nodding at her reassuringly. ‘You deserve it.’
I do? she was dying to say. How come? I thought you were preparing to dump me. Isn’t that the next item on your agenda?
But of course the dumping was to take place after the trip, after he’d used her as his sexual plaything and adorable arm-piece, after a week of sex Cliff Baxter-style.
Yes, Cliff was that most dangerous of men. An attractive, famous, charming, talented, rich user of women.
We’ll see, Mr Baxter, she thought. We’ll damn well see.
* * *
The Luttmans invited a dozen or so friends over to show off their famous star guest. Luca wasn’t too thrilled. He’d been looking forward to lying back and relaxing — not being put on display.
Jeromy was one happy camper. The more important people he met, the better for his design business. It seemed everyone had a second home in London, so what could be better? He flung himself into being socially adept, while Luca sat at a table surrounded by predatory, overly tanned, bored women, all married to incredibly rich men who were at least thirty years older than them, and all anxious to capture Luca’s full attention.
Jeromy glanced over. Foolish women. Didn’t they know Luca was gay? Didn’t they get it?
Apparently the message hadn’t reached them.
By the end of the evening Jeromy had acquired three new clients, and an offer for him and Luca to join Lanita and Sydney in their luxurious bedroom later that night.
Jeromy knew Luca would decline — however, there was nothing wrong with being curious. What did Lanita and Sydney have in mind?
Sex, of course. But what combination? And where did Lanita fit in?
As soon as Luca was asleep in the guest suite, Jeromy couldn’t resist; he took himself to the master bedroom where incense candles burned, and Sydney lay spread-eagled on the middle of the bed with a healthy Viagra-inspired erection and an even healthier gut, which Jeromy found quite exciting in a totally repulsive way.
Lanita was also present, clad head-to-toe in a Day-Glo purple latex body suit, welding a lethal whip with a sinister vampira mask covering her eyes. ‘Welcome,’ she purred. ‘Where is Luca?’
Naturally they wanted the star, who didn’t? Only tonight they’d have to make do with him.
Fortunately for them, he was far better at participating in games than Luca.
* * *
Nobody played a more beguiling man of the people than Senator Hammond Patterson. He had it down to a fine art. Smile at everyone, pose with their children, pick up babies, wave when it was appropriate, always appear amicable and approachable. He came across as idealistic and full of hope, when in point of fact he was rife with ambition and harboured a deceptive personality.
As Hammond’s closest personal aide, Eddie March had yet to discover the real man who lurked beneath the façade of decency and truth. All he saw was an upstanding man who always spoke up for what he believed in. A future candidate for the Presidency of America. A compassionate man with high standards.
Eddie also saw the very beautiful, classy and serene wife of the Senator, Sierra Hammond. Every time he was in her presence she took his breath away. He had a schoolboy crush and there was nothing he could do about it except worship from afar.
Eddie March was catnip to women: an attractive, single male, working next to an esteemed Senator. At thirty-four he had his own boyish charm, only his was genuine.
Eddie elected to accompany Hammond and Sierra to the airport on the pretext that he had a few things to tie up before the Senator’s short vacation.
He sat opposite Hammond in the limousine discussing final decisions on several matters pending.
Sierra curled into her seat and gazed blankly out the window.
Eddie couldn’t help sending a few furtive glances her way. She was so damn beautiful with her porcelain skin and exquisite cheekbones. How the hell had Hammond gotten so lucky?
There was a mini-press conference outside the airport — not planned, but Hammond handled it with his usual style. Everyone was anxious to know when and if he was planning to run — rumours abounded.
Hammond gave them the well-thought-out noncommittal answers, for he had no intention of revealing his strategy to announce his candidacy. When the time came he’d decided that he would make his announcement on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, just like several other important politicians before him.
After all, he was a man of the people — what could be more fitting?
It was Sergei’s way to do things fast. Fast and thorough, with an obsessive attention to detail. Possessing a steel-trap mind, a lack of conscience and a knack for picking the right business partners, when he required something to be done, he expected instant gratification or there would be consequences.
So when Sergei discovered that Aleksandr Kasianenko was the man responsible for his brother’s murder, he immediately had his people find out everything he needed to know about his fellow Russian. Sergei had numerous contacts, and since information was a currency he dealt in every day, it didn’t take long. Way back in the early nineties, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sergei was reminded that Boris and Aleksandr Kasianenko had been involved in some kind of business dispute over shares in an oil company, to which Boris had claimed he was entitled. Sergei had no memory of how the issue was resolved, but he did recall that Boris had always held a grudge, and after brooding about it for years, he’d made plans to kidnap one of Kasianenko’s daughters and hold her for ransom. ‘That motherfucking pizda still owes me money,’ Boris had raged. ‘It’s been years now, and I have waited long enough. It is time to claim what’s mine.’
Boris’s plan had never materialized because of his untimely death.
Finally Sergei understood why. Aleksandr Kasianenko must’ve heard about the kidnapping plot, and taken steps to prevent it from happening. Aleksandr Kasianenko had murdered Boris, taken his life as if it meant nothing. And he would pay for that.
When Sergei heard about Aleksandr’s new yacht and his upcoming trip, it was like a gift laid out in all its glory for him to salivate over and relish.
He could almost taste the ultimate revenge.
Could anything be more perfect?
One rich lucky motherfucker.
Not so lucky any more.
Sergei would see to that.
When Bianca caught sight of her name emblazoned across the side of the gleaming white super-yacht, she forgot all about her fight with her lover. She turned to Aleksandr and hugged him tightly. ‘You didn’t!’ she squealed.
‘Yes, my dear, I did,’ he said, finally breaking a smile, for their flight to Cabo had been most uncomfortable. Bianca had spent the majority of the time locked in the bedroom, which was an embarrassment considering they had guests. At times she could be a wilful woman and it infuriated him.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she demanded, green eyes gleaming with delight.
‘I decided to surprise you,’ Aleksandr said. ‘I know how you love surprises.’
‘Now I feel so selfish for not helping you with our guests,’ Bianca said, pouting. ‘I’m such a bad, bad girl.’
‘It’s all right, my dear,’ he assured her. ‘Our guests slept.’
‘I fell asleep for a minute or two,’ he replied. ‘Not as comfortably as if I’d been in my own bedroom, but it was acceptable.’
‘Why didn’t you come in and join me?’ Bianca asked, experiencing waves of guilt. ‘I wouldn’t’ve kicked you out.’
‘I was under the impression that you were in no mood to be disturbed.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, truly meaning it.
‘Good enough,’ he replied, relieved to put their argument to rest. Fighting with Bianca was not his favourite pastime.
‘I’m also sorry for flashing my cooch,’ Bianca added with an embarrassed giggle. ‘You know it wasn’t intentional. I wouldn’t do that.’
‘I’m sure it wasn’t.’
‘Damn cell-phone cameras,’ she grumbled. ‘They should be banned!’
‘I expect my wife will eventually get over it,’ Aleksandr said, quite certain that Bianca’s indiscretion would cost him dearly.
‘You think?’ she asked hopefully.
‘I know,’ Aleksandr said, taking her arm. ‘Come, my dear. Let us go board The Bianca. The magnificent lady awaits our presence.’
* * *
Away from London, their large house, the demanding twins, her interfering mother and her design obligations — which as far as Taye could tell consisted of nothing more than picking out fancy fabrics for rich clients — Ashley was like a different person. She’d suddenly turned all giggly and girlish, groping him on the plane — even suggesting they might do it in the toilet. His wife was actually happy and randy! Exactly like the girl he’d married six years ago, the girl who couldn’t get enough, the fun-loving Ashley he’d knocked up in the back of his Roller one drunken night after a party.
Ah yes, he remembered that night well. Ashley in a Stella McCartney dress and no knickers, high heels and bare legs. He’d actually gone down on her in the back of the car before jamming it into her sweet wetness.
It was the night they’d conceived Aimee and Wolf. What a night!
‘Oh,’ Ashley said, fanning herself as they got off the plane. ‘This place is bloody hot.’
‘Yeah,’ Taye agreed, ‘an’ it’ll get even hotter tonight when I’m givin’ you exactly what you want.’
‘You mean what you want,’ she giggled.
They had not done it on the plane due to the fact that Ashley had complained that the toilet was too disgusting. ‘There’s three inches of pee on the floor,’ she’d moaned in disgust. ‘Why can’t men ever aim straight?’
‘I can,’ Taye had retorted with a lavicious grin.
‘Oh, I know that,’ she’d replied.
And he’d known without a doubt that tonight he was definitely getting lucky.
* * *
Watching Xuan grill Aleksandr was quite entertaining. It wasn’t until Xuan had started her inquisition that Flynn had come to hear of the charitable deeds the rich Russian was capable of: the man was full of surprises. Now he was aware that Aleksandr had a charitable side, there were many things Flynn thought he might discuss with him. For instance, would Aleksandr be prepared to sponsor the building of a school in Ethiopia for orphans who’d lost their parents in the ongoing war? It was a project that had been on Flynn’s mind for a while, but raising the money was almost impossible. He was in weekly contact with people who were prepared to build and organize everything, but lack of funds was the big hold-up. One school. Surely that wasn’t too much for Aleksandr to manage?
Flynn decided that before the trip was over, it was his duty to ask.
Aleksandr was obviously intrigued by Xuan; they hadn’t stopped talking on the flight. Finally — after landing — Bianca had emerged from the bedroom, and she and Aleksandr had left the plane together, followed by Aleksandr’s ever-present bodyguard, Kyril.
‘I wish to take Bianca to the yacht first,’ Aleksandr told Flynn. ‘A car will come for you and Xuan shortly.’
So Flynn was left with Xuan, who couldn’t wait to inform him that Aleksandr Kasianenko was a far more interesting man than he’d led her to believe.
‘I didn’t lead you to believe anything,’ Flynn objected.
‘Yes, you did,’ Xuan insisted. ‘You told me he was an obscenely rich oligarch with no conscience.’
‘Bullshit,’ Flynn said, laughing. ‘I never said that.’
‘Well, that’s the impression I got.’
‘Then you should listen more carefully.’
‘Anyway,’ Xuan said, smoothing back her long hair. ‘I find him to be an extremely knowledgeable man.’
Flynn raised a sceptical eyebrow. ‘You do?’
‘Yes, I do. Although I cannot imagine what he sees in that rude spoiled creature he’s with.’
Flynn felt argumentative. ‘What makes you think Bianca’s spoiled?’
‘Did you see the way she behaved?’ Xuan said. ‘Sulking like a teenager. I can’t stand that kind of woman. They imagine their beauty excuses them from everything.’
‘I think we caught them mid-argument,’ Flynn noted.
‘Perhaps. But in my opinion, a man like Aleksandr deserves better.’
Flynn broke into a smile. ‘I do believe my little Xuan has a crush,’ he teased.
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ she snapped.
‘These things happen,’ he said lightly. ‘Even to you.’
‘My goodness, Flynn, having sex with someone you like has taken away your better sense of judgment.’
‘And so she turns the tables,’ Flynn said.
‘And so he starts speaking in clichés,’ Xuan shot back.
‘I have to say that you and Aleksandr would make an interesting couple,’ Flynn observed.
‘Oh, please,’ Xuan said, dismissing his comments with a shake of her head. ‘The man is taken, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
So she did like him. Flynn was amused at the thought of Xuan and Aleksandr together. It would be the mis-match of the century. The Russian oligarch and the militant Asian girl. What a fun combination that could turn out to be.
* * *
Guy, the entertainment director from the yacht, personally met Cliff Baxter and his girlfriend at the airport. A gay, personable Australian, Guy was used to dealing with celebrities, and it was his wish to make the couple feel as comfortable as possible from the get-go.
‘The name’s Guy,’ he said, offering Cliff a firm handshake. ‘It’s a pleasure to welcome you, Mr Baxter.’
‘It’s a pleasure to be welcomed,’ Cliff responded, his famous movie-star smile thrilling every woman who hovered within ten feet of him.
‘I’m Lori,’ Lori said, asserting herself.
‘Welcome, ma’am,’ Guy said, reaching for her carry-on bag. ‘Allow me to help you with that.’
‘Certainly,’ Lori said, trying to decide if he was gay or not. He was certainly nice-looking, tall and muscular with bleached white hair worn in a spiky cut, crinkly pale blue eyes, and a deep suntan.
‘Follow me,’ Guy said, attempting not to stare at Cliff Baxter, who was just as handsome in person as he was on the screen. ‘Your luggage will be taken care of. I have a car waiting. And Mr Kasianenko wanted me to tell you that he is delighted you are here.’
* * *
The Luttmans supplied a white Bentley to take Luca and Jeromy to join the Kasianenko yacht. After his nighttime sexual adventures with the Luttmans, Jeromy was quite hung-over. He hadn’t drank that much — was there such a thing as a sexual hangover? Yes. And Jeromy was proof that it existed.
Between the two of them and their sexual perversions, the Luttmans had worn him out. Jeromy had always been partial to a walk on the wild side, but the Luttmans were something else. He almost blushed at the memories.
Luca was his usual handsome, cheerful, blond-god self. Jeromy wondered what Luca would say if he ever found out about the sexual shenanigans that had taken place the previous evening. Luca would probably be shocked. He might be gay, but in Jeromy’s world he was an innocent gay with very limited experience. You suck my cock, I’ll suck yours. Plus a certain amount of mild penetration on special occasions.
It was no wonder that Jeromy had to venture elsewhere to get real satisfaction.
‘I can’t wait to relax and get away from everything,’ Luca said now. ‘How about you?’
‘I must say that being on the Kasianenko yacht sounds like the perfect getaway,’ Jeromy agreed, adjusting his dark glasses so they hid what surely must be hideous bags under his eyes. He longed to pat haemorrhoid cream around his eyes before falling into a deep and most welcome sleep.
Alas, that would have to wait until later, because right now he had the role of attentive boyfriend to play, and nobody played it better than Jeromy Milton-Gold.
* * *
‘We’re here.’ Hammond nudged his wife awake as the plane landed. ‘Try to look a little less miserable and for crissake put on a smile,’ he said, his tone a sharp command. ‘Do not forget these people are all future contributors to my campaign, so attempt to sparkle.’
Did Hammond just instruct her to sparkle? Was that what he expected?
Or he’d regale her with his threats again. Threats against her family. Threats he assured her on an almost daily basis he could definitely arrange to have carried out.
Sierra plastered on a fixed smile and prepared herself for the inevitable.
The Senator’s wife.
A good wife.
After exploring the luxurious yacht and falling in love with every aspect of it, especially the opulent master suite, Bianca settled on the main deck with Aleksandr by her side, and a glass of champagne in her hand, ready to greet their guests.
‘This is paradise,’ she commented, taking in her surroundings and realizing how lucky she was to have found a man like Aleksandr. Not only was he a fantastic lover, but he was so very good to her and rich rich rich! Not that his money mattered, she had plenty of her own. However, it made a welcome change to be with a man who did not expect her to pick up the bill.
‘It certainly is,’ Aleksandr agreed. ‘And there will be more surprises to come.’
‘I can’t wait,’ she said, clinging to his arm. ‘Tell me everything.’
‘Be patient, my love,’ he said, lifting his glass to clink it with hers.
‘You shouldn’t keep me waiting,’ Bianca said with a captivating smile.
‘Ah, but that’s exactly what I should do,’ Aleksandr responded. He knew how to keep Bianca interested.
Ashley and Taye were the first guests to arrive. Bianca was pleased. She and Ashley were sometime friends, and she couldn’t wait to show the glamorous yacht off. She gave Taye a quick kiss on the cheek and hoped that he’d forgotten about their one night of lust many years ago.
Apparently he had, for he never said a word, not that he would in front of his wife.
‘This is amazing!’ Ashley squealed, taking in her surroundings. ‘Your name is on the boat and everything! How fantastic is that?’
‘My gift to my lady,’ Aleksandr said with an enigmatic smile. ‘Bianca deserves only the best.’
Some gift, Ashley thought as she quickly checked Aleksandr out. She found him to be a somewhat imposing man with his close-cropped dark hair, grey at the temples, and heavy-set features. He was attractive in a very manly way. A bit frightening really, like the mysterious villain in a Hollywood action movie.
‘This is so exciting!’ Ashley said, continuing to enthuse as she and Bianca sipped champagne.
‘I know,’ Bianca agreed, smoothing down her Azzedine Alaia tighter-than-tight dress. ‘The whole yacht thing was all Aleksandr’s idea, and I’m here to tell you that I’m loving every single minute!’
‘Who wouldn’t?’ Ashley said, experiencing a sharp stab of envy.
‘I know,’ Bianca agreed. ‘It’s quite overwhelming.’
‘Can I ask who else is coming?’ Ashley asked, plucking a smoked salmon canapé from a passing stewardess.
Before Bianca could reveal who the other guests were, Luca and Jeromy were escorted aboard.
Spotting her old friend Luca, Bianca flung herself at him with screams of excitement. ‘Look at you,’ she yelled. ‘Big fuckin’ star! And don’t we love it!’
Luca was as delighted to see her as she was to see him. He’d known Bianca long before he was famous, and she’d always been a loyal friend to him, especially when he’d come out. He embraced her energy and spirit, and he considered her to be very special, even though they never got to spend as much time together as they would like.
‘You look outrageous,’ he said, taking a step back to admire her. ‘Could your dress be any tighter?’
‘You know what they say,’ Bianca responded with a cheeky wink. ‘If you got it, put it on show!’
‘I’m all over that!’ Luca said, grinning.
Ashley sauntered over to Jeromy. ‘Bet you never expected to see me here,’ she said with a distinct note of triumph.
‘Lord, no!’ Jeromy exclaimed, hardly able to conceal his surprise. ‘When did you get invited?’
‘The same time as you,’ Ashley retorted, delighted to stick it to him. ‘Taye had the invite in his pocket all through that dinner we had. He thought if he kept it hidden, he’d get lucky later on.’
‘And did he?’ Jeromy asked caustically, not thrilled with the calibre of guests. He’d expected so much more than Ashley and Taye, although he soon changed his opinion when Cliff Baxter and a vibrant young redhead appeared. Aha! A full-bodied movie star. Nice one. Jeromy launched into full smarm.
Lori stood back and checked out the other guests, while a tall, skinny, anonymous Englishman played kiss ass with Cliff.
She noticed Luca Perez and was immediately smitten. He was so gorgeous with his quiff of blond hair and golden tan. Then there was super-model Bianca with her deep caramel skin and delicious green cat-eyes. The Russian man, their host, was an overpowering presence in a very quiet, almost sinister way. And Taye Sherwin, the famous Brit footballer. What a hunk, although his wife wasn’t exactly Miss Friendly. When they were introduced, Ashley Sherwin had sniffed out a hello as if it was giving her a migraine.
Bitch! Lori thought. I’m not good enough for you, but I bet my boyfriend is.
And bingo! Lori was right. Ashley cracked a big smile when introduced to Cliff. ‘I love all your movies,’ she simpered, tossing her long blond curls and sticking out her boobs. ‘I’m such a big fan.’
You should see his cock, Lori thought. Or maybe not. She’d often taken note of Taye Sherwin’s print commercials in all the best magazines, and he was certainly not lacking in the big dick department. Either that or he was stuffing socks.
Lori grinned. Fun with the rich and famous. Little Lori Walsh was doing well for herself. Maybe the Russian had a billionaire friend she could hook up with. After all, she was the soon-to-be-ex of a major movie star, that had to count for something.
Flynn and Xuan were almost the last to arrive. Flynn might not be famous, but every woman’s eyes swivelled to check him out. He was dead sexy in an edgy way. Not perfect by any means, but he had the look. The two-day stubble, intense ice-blue eyes, lean body and longish hair. Cliff Baxter was classically handsome. Taye Sherwin, boyish. Luca, gorgeous but gay. Aleksandr, an overpowering presence. And then there was Flynn. The most attractive man on the boat.
Hot, Lori thought.
Delicious, Ashley thought.
Damn! Bianca thought.
And while everyone was lusting after Flynn and wondering exactly who he was, Hammond Patterson made his entrance, trailed by the lovely Mrs Patterson.
Flynn glanced over and suddenly felt his world spin out of control, for to his shock and surprise he was staring straight into the eyes of the love of his life.
* * *
15 years earlier
By the time he was twenty, Flynn Hudson had been with more girls than he could remember or even count. It wasn’t that he chased them, it seemed that they were always coming onto him — and he had no logical reason to turn them down. What the hell, he was young, fit, and enjoying himself while studying Economics, Journalism and World Affairs at UCLA in Los Angeles.
Flynn lived in a house on Westholm Avenue with several other guys. They were a rowdy bunch who liked to use Flynn as the bait to get girls. It always worked. Flynn took the prize, and they shared the leftovers. They all joked about it, except Hammond Patterson — commonly known as Ham — who often argued that he was the main attraction considering his dad was an important congressman, and that he too was going into politics.
Ham was the peacock of the group, forever boasting about his conquests and insisting on sharing graphic sexual details whenever he got a girl into bed.
Flynn and Ham did not get along at all. Ham was jealous of Flynn, and it showed. Flynn considered Ham to be a major asshole.
Flynn’s American grandparents lived in a large house in Brentwood, and sometimes he’d spend the weekends hanging out there.
One memorable weekend while his grandparents were safely in Palm Springs, his buddies had persuaded him to throw an open-house party. It wasn’t Flynn’s idea, but he got talked into it by Arnie, one of his best friends.
The party started out as a sedate get-together, but as word spread, it soon turned into a major rave. The beer began flowing, naked girls couldn’t wait to jump into the swimming pool, while the smell of pot wafted in the air.
‘Jeez, Arnie,’ Flynn complained after the cops had visited twice, ‘my freakin’ grandparents are gonna go apeshit. Help me close this thing down.’
And as he watched, Arnie dissolved into a useless stoned heap.
Flynn shook his head, glanced up — and then he saw her. The girl with the heart-shaped face, honey-coppery hair and large brown eyes. ‘Pretty’ did not do her justice. She was a showstopper, and she was busy fighting off Ham, who was trying to persuade her to take a swig from the beer bottle he was holding. Ham had her in a neck-lock.
Flynn didn’t hesitate, but quickly moved in. ‘Easy,’ he warned Ham. ‘Looks to me like she doesn’t want a drink, so get your hands off her. ’
‘Y’ can fuck off,’ Ham slurred, hanging onto the girl with intent to keep her. ‘None of your fuckin’ business.’
Flynn stared at the girl. ‘Are you with this guy?’ he asked.
‘No way,’ she said, suddenly shaking herself free and starting to run off, but not before yelling, ‘You know something? You’re all a bunch of drunken slobs!’
And that was that. Until three weeks later, when he saw her again. She was standing outside a fast-food restaurant in Westwood with another girl, and as luck would have it he knew the girl she was with.
The good news was that he was acquainted with her friend.
The bad news was that he was on a date, and his date was a clinger who refused to let go of him.
Flynn did not allow this to stop him. He walked over to the girl he knew, said hello, and waited for her to introduce him to her friend. Which she did.
Then he had her name. Sierra Snow. A name as beautiful as the girl herself.
Sierra barely looked at him, but it didn’t matter. He was finished, gone — helplessly, hopelessly in love or lust or whatever.
Somehow he knew that Sierra and he were destined to be together. It was fate, karma, whatever you want to call it.
It was, quite simply, inevitable.
Women were Sergei’s playthings. Like new toys he only kept them around until they were broken or he got bored.
His current paramours were Ina Mendoza, a former Mexican beauty queen who lived at his Acapulco villa, and Cookie, a ratty blonde American D-list actress who’d once starred in a successful US comedy where she’d flashed her fake boobs. Since then she’d done nothing of note.
He kept Cookie stashed in his Mexico City penthouse where she spent her days going shopping, always accompanied by a female bodyguard on the vague chance that she might be kidnapped.
‘Kidnapped? You?’ Sergei had sneered when she’d mentioned her fears. ‘Nobody would dare to fuck with Sergei Zukov. Any kidnapping to be done is done by me.’ To placate her, he’d assigned one of his bodyguards to watch over her.
Cookie was thrilled that she had landed a powerful boyfriend. Finally. Her Hollywood career had not been stellar, therefore Sergei was her last chance of hitting the big time. She knew he had plenty of money, and she was hoping that she might get him to finance a movie — starring her. What a coup that would be.
Her ex-husband, a nightclub bouncer back in L.A., had written a banging script, and all she had to do was get Sergei interested. Since he had the attention span of a gnat, this was no easy job.
Lately he’d had something else on his mind, something that seemed to be taking all his attention.
Cookie hoped it wasn’t the fat Mexican so-called beauty queen he kept in Acapulco. She seethed with jealousy over that one. What could Ina do that she couldn’t?
She’d raised the subject of Ina once with Sergei, and he’d slapped her across the face so hard that she’d lived with the imprint of his hand for days.
Bastard! He’d pay for that.
Or maybe not. Cookie knew better than to cross boundaries. Sergei was her ticket back to the big times — if only he’d read the fucking script.
* * *
‘How is your American puta?’ Ina sneered, her Latin eyes filled with jealousy, hands on voluptous hips — she’d put on twenty pounds since winning her title.
Sergei silenced her with a grim look. He did not appreciate being questioned, and certainly not by a woman. Didn’t they realize that they were interchangeable? However sexy and pretty they thought they were, there was always a younger, prettier model creeping up behind.
He had an urge to slap Ina, leave the imprint of his hand on her smooth cheek, exactly as he’d done with Cookie. Women needed discipline.
He couldn’t do it, however, because Ina’s brother, Cruz, was in the house, and Sergei needed Cruz, for he was an important part of Sergei’s plan. In fact, her brother was one of the main reasons he kept Ina around. Family connections were important.
Sergei had conducted business with Cruz before. There were many deals to be brokered when it came to drugs, and when Sergei needed him, Cruz had turned out to be a reliable and useful contact for moving shipments.
How fortuitous was it that Ina had a brother who’d spent the last seven years in Somalia, amassing a fortune from pirating small ships and yachts — any vessel he and his team could hold for ransom. Anything to do with the high seas, and Cruz had it down. Therefore he was just the asset Sergei needed right now, and when Sergei needed something, things always fell into place.
He’d made Cruz an offer he couldn’t resist, and now Ina’s brother was living in his house, and Cruz’s men were ensconced in a downtown hotel ready to move when Cruz gave them the word.
Plans were in motion.
Soon Mr Big Shot Aleksandr Kasianenko would find out how real men did business.
Once all the guests were aboard, Aleksandr instructed Captain Dickson to set sail. The Captain obliged, aware he had precious cargo, and delighted to add the list of esteemed guests to his resumé. He was particularly chuffed that Taye Sherwin was on the trip. The man was a brilliant footballer — right up there with the best of them. Twice picked as the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, a former Captain of the national English team, a brilliant player, Taye Sherwin had experienced an illustrious career. Captain Dickson was honoured to have him aboard. Of course it was not too shabby either that the movie star, Cliff Baxter, was also with them, and Senator Hammond Patterson and his lovely wife.
The Bianca had a crew of eighteen, which included everyone from an executive chef, to a barman, stewardesses, engineers, a valet, a head housekeeper, deck hands, maids, and Guy — whose job was to keep the guests contented and entertained at all times.
Captain Dickson was not as happy with his crew as he should have been. He’d had to say yes to the hire of a few replacement crew members when three of his regulars had dropped out at the last minute. This did not please him, as he preferred working with a crew who knew exactly how he expected them to behave.
One of the new hires was a Mexican girl, Mercedes, that Guy had seen fit to take on as a stewardess. Captain Dickson considered her too attractive for her own good. He didn’t want any of the female guests getting annoyed or jealous; he’d seen that happen before. He instructed Guy to keep a strong eye on her.
‘No worries,’ Guy had assured him. ‘I’ve checked out her references — not one complaint. I’ll watch her.’
‘You’d better,’ Captain Dickson had warned him. ‘Her kind are inclined to give us problems.’
Her kind, Guy thought, convinced that Captain Dickson was some sort of old-style British racist. Apart from one African-American engineer, the rest of the crew were all white. Besides, Mercedes wasn’t that attractive. For a start she was on the short side, and was it his imagination, or was her left eye slightly squinty? And could he detect the beginnings of a very faint moustache? However, he had to admit that she gave off a sexier vibe than most of the fresh-faced girls he usually worked with. Anyway, there hadn’t been much time left, so he’d hired her. Personally, he kind of liked the idea of introducing a bit of flavour to the trip. As long as she did her job, he was cool with it.
Over the last year Guy had worked on several high-profile cruises — one with a famous female talk-show host, another with a dominating captain of industry, and then there was the trip with the two NBA players.
The female talk-show titan had turned out to be a secret lesbian. The captain of industry had turned out to be a raging pervert. And the two NBA players had turned out to be hooker hounds with libidos that never quit.
Guy figured if he could handle that lot, then he was certainly well equipped to deal with one sexy little Mexican stewardess.
* * *
‘Nice!’ Taye exclaimed, exploring their accommodations, which consisted of a large, stylishly decorated VIP stateroom — colour scheme pale blue — with a king-size bed, plenty of built-in closet space, a small private terrace, and an all-marble en-suite bathroom.
‘Not bad,’ Ashley agreed, trying to conceal her excitement at actually being on the same trip as Cliff Baxter. The Cliff Baxter. People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. GQ’s Man of the Year. Rolling Stone’s Actor of the Decade. Not to mention hundreds of other accolades.
Ashley had a major crush. And was it her imagination, or had Cliff given her a long lingering look — a look rife with sexual promise? Ashley was full of expectations. What if Cliff Baxter came onto her? What would she do? How would she handle it?
She felt quite light-headed.
Was she capable of cheating on Taye? She never had, but this was Cliff Baxter, every woman’s fantasy, so surely a quick fling was allowed? The very thought made her tingle with the anticipation of the forbidden.
She’d relished the expression of shock on uptight Jeromy’s face when he’d discovered that she and Taye were guests on the yacht. Jeromy could be such an annoying snob at times, so she and Taye being included kind of evened-out the playing-field.
In the meantime she couldn’t wait to have a girls’ gossip with Bianca, get the scoop on everyone. She’d already decided that Cliff Baxter’s girlfriend was no big deal. The girl had a nice body and flaming red hair — probably dyed — but Lori wasn’t drop-dead Hollywood gorgeous — just kind of ordinary really. Ashley had thought Cliff would have a raving beauty on his arm, someone of the Angelina Jolie calibre.
‘What’re you thinkin’?’ Taye asked, plopping himself down on the bed and patting a spot beside him.
‘I’m wondering what I should wear for dinner,’ Ashley mused, fluffing out her blond curls. ‘Do you think we’re eating outside?’
‘I expect so,’ Taye responded. ‘Heard someone mention dinner is on one of the decks. It’s all go, ain’t it, toots?’
‘Cool it with the toots,’ Ashley said irritably. ‘We wouldn’t want to sound like the poor relatives, would we?’
Taye shot her a dirty look. ‘Poor what?’
She’d hit a sensitive spot. Taye hated it when she intimated that they weren’t good enough. She suspected it had something to do with him being black. Not that it mattered to her, she wasn’t her mother’s daughter when it came to racist thoughts.
‘Nothing,’ she said, sitting on the bed beside him.
The bed was soft, welcoming. They’d been travelling all day, so she was entitled to be tired, what with the time-change and all. And it was important that she looked her best for cocktails at five thirty. Yes, she wouldn’t mind a nap before dinner.
Cocktails first, then dinner in the company of Cliff Baxter. If she was lucky, maybe she’d be seated next to him at the dinner-table.
Ashley couldn’t wait.
* * *
‘I can’t believe how Taye and Ashley managed to get themselves invited,’ Jeromy fumed. ‘I should never have told them about the trip. It’s quite obvious they solicited their own invitation once they heard about it.’
‘I thought you liked Ashley,’ Luca remarked. ‘Didn’t you bring her in as your partner?’
‘Only for the name value.’ Jeromy sniffed. ‘And do not forget that Taye invested money in the business too. You could say she bought her way in.’
Luca stripped off his shirt and threw it on the bed, next he dropped his pants.
‘What are you doing?’ Jeromy asked, alarmed — because after the sex marathon with the Luttmans of the previous evening, he was not in the mood for more of the same. Although with Luca it would be oral and that was about it.
‘I’m off to the pool,’ Luca said, opening a drawer and trying to discover where the valet who’d unpacked for them had put his swimming shorts.
‘Oh,’ Jeromy said. ‘I was thinking perhaps a nap might be more of a plan.’
Luca located his colourful Versace shorts and slipped them on. ‘Not for me,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I’m catching up with Bianca. Promised I’d meet her by the pool.’
‘Should I come with?’
‘Not necessary,’ Luca said, running a hand through his thick head of blond hair. ‘We’d probably bore you with our reminiscences.’
Reminiscences? Luca and Bianca? Yes, he would be bored listening to the stories of how the two of them first met.
‘Then I shall stay here and rest,’ Jeromy decided.
‘See you later,’ Luca said, and he was gone, leaving Jeromy to stew over the fact that he was being disincluded.
* * *
‘Impressed?’ Cliff questioned, gesturing around their luxurious stateroom.
‘With what?’ Lori retorted, opening up her carry-on bag.
‘You know what,’ he said, a tad irritable.
‘No, I don’t,’ she said, being purposely obtuse.
‘Oh come on,’ Cliff said, stifling a yawn. ‘The yacht. The other guests. This whole incredible set-up.’
She turned on him. ‘Are you impressed, Cliff?’
‘Why would I be impressed?’ he said, laughing and shaking his head.
‘Then why would I?’ she countered, taking out her makeup case.
‘’Cause you’re twenty-four, sweetie,’ he pointed out. ‘You’ve got to admit that you’ve never seen anything like this yacht before. You shouldn’t forget that you’re one very, very lucky girl.’
‘Am I?’ she said, giving him a piercing look.
‘For fuck’s sake, what’s the matter with you?’ Cliff said, his handsome face suddenly scowling. ‘You’ve been acting like a petulant little bitch ever since we left L.A.’
She was tempted to tell him exactly what she was pissed about. Excuse me, Mister big fucking movie star. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you just about getting ready to dump my ass? So why shouldn’t I be pissed off?
‘It was a long journey,’ she said, deciding that backing down was probably the best way to go. ‘And yes, Cliff, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Thanks so much for including me.’
‘That’s better,’ Cliff said, satisfied.
And before she knew it, he was unzipping, readying himself for the inevitable blow-job.
* * *
Guy personally escorted Senator Hammond and his wife to their stateroom.
Hammond glanced around and said, ‘This’ll do.’
‘Is there anything at all I can get for you, Senator?’ Guy asked. He was impressed with Sierra Patterson. She was quite lovely, even more so than the photos of her he’d seen in magazines and newspapers.
‘A bottle of Grey Goose vodka would be very welcome,’ Hammond said, winking at Sierra. ‘Right, darling?’
Sierra summoned a weak smile. She was in shock. Total shock. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined she would run into Flynn again.
Yet here he was. Flynn Hudson. The love of her life.
It was all too much.
* * *
15 years earlier
Sierra would never forget the first time she saw Flynn. It was at a party, and he came racing over to rescue her from the man who would one day in the far-off future become her husband.
What a joke! What a travesty! Marriage to Hammond should have never happened.
But it had. Unfortunately.
She remembered getting a quick look at Flynn on his rescue mission. Tall, with longish hair and the most incredible steely blue eyes. She’d run off yelling they were both drunken assholes, and then she hadn’t stopped talking about him to her girlfriends. ‘Who is he?’ she’d wanted to know.
‘Give us a clue,’ they’d all replied. ‘We don’t know who you’re carrying on about.’
She’d shrugged, she had no idea who he was or where she could track him down. Until a few weeks later, she’d been sitting in Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood, when she’d spotted him through the window.
‘Quick!’ she’d shouted at her friend. ‘It’s him! Do something!’
They hurriedly made it outside and tried to appear casual.
The good news was that her friend knew him.
The bad news was that he had a girl clinging to him like a magnet.
But they exchanged names, discovered they both attended UCLA, and Sierra knew it was the start of something special.
Flynn Hudson was her future. There was no doubt about it.
Lying out by the pool, located on the middle deck, Bianca and Luca indulged in a major gossip-fest as the sleek yacht navigated the shimmering blue waters of the Sea of Cortez.
‘What do you think of the group we’ve gathered?’ Bianca asked, sunning herself in a barely there Brazilian bikini, her dark skin gleaming in the sunlight.
‘It’s some crazy mix,’ Luca observed.
‘Isn’t it just,’ Bianca agreed, stretching one leg above her head. ‘I only know half the people.’
‘That’s more than I do. And stop flashing.’
Bianca lowered her leg and grinned. ‘Anyway, all I can say is thank God you’re here.’
‘Who’s the tall guy with the two-day stubble?’ Luca asked, reaching for the bronzing oil.
‘Oh, you must mean Aleksandr’s writer friend, Flynn. Sexy, isn’t he? I just met him for the first time.’
‘There’s something kinda cool an’ yet major hot about him,’ Luca observed, rubbing oil on his legs.
‘Hmm,’ Bianca murmured knowingly. ‘Could be you fancy him?’
‘Maybe,’ Luca said, with a wide grin. ‘Don’t you?’
‘I think just about everyone does,’ Bianca said. ‘Only we may as well forget it, ’cause according to Aleksandr he’s major straight. And anyway he’s with that pretty little Asian piece.’
‘Ah,’ Luca said knowingly. ‘Men are like spaghetti, they’re all straight until they hit hot water.’
‘Luca!’ Bianca exclaimed, giggling. ‘I thought you were happily joined at the ass with Jeromy?’
Luca shrugged. ‘I can look, can’t I?’ he said, handing her the oil and turning onto his front.
‘Is that what you’re doing?’ Bianca said, amused.
‘You can bet that Jeromy does more than look.’
‘Really?’ Bianca said, obligingly smoothing the sticky oil all over Luca’s bronzed back.
‘Yeah, really. He thinks I don’t have any idea about what he gets up to, but I know everything.’
‘Hey, it’s not as if I care,’ Luca said casually. ‘Do you see me as the jealous type?’
‘I’m jealous as shit,’ Bianca said, rolling her eyes. ‘If I caught Aleksandr screwing around I’d cut off his balls and bounce them from here to Moscow.’
‘You’re such a girl,’ Luca teased.
‘Guilty as charged,’ Bianca said, putting down the bottle of oil and wiping her hands on a towel.
‘So this is what true love is like in all its glory?’ Luca said, still lying on his stomach.
‘I suppose you could say that.’
‘Ah,’ Luca observed. ‘The girl who’d do anyone has finally found the one.’
‘Yep,’ Bianca said, nodding vigorously. ‘Aleksandr is it for me. He’s so sexy, and he treats me like a queen.’
‘Darling,’ Luca objected, ‘I’m the queen, you’re just a girl in lust.’
‘Love,’ Bianca corrected briskly. ‘True fuckin’ love.’
‘Okay, okay, but trust me — I know you. You’ll get bored eventually.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Yes, you will.’
‘Don’t be such a Debbie downer.’
‘If you’re giving me a girl’s name, make it Lucia.’
‘Oh my God!’ Bianca exclaimed, once more rolling her eyes. ‘You’re too much!’
Luca sat up, picked up his drink and took a sip. ‘Hey — remember when you and I nearly—’
‘Don’t remind me!’ Bianca squealed. ‘Shades of you couldn’t get it up, and I was totally insulted.’
‘Yeah, but then later we became best friends.’
‘After I discovered you were gay.’
‘For your information, the reason I couldn’t get it up was ’cause I had a hard-on for one of Suga’s back-up dancers,’ Luca confessed. ‘He was that black dude with the amazing abs.’
‘Had him,’ Bianca said matter-of-factly. ‘All abs and no cock.’
They both fell about laughing.
* * *
As soon as she’d finished servicing Cliff, Lori decided she did not wish to sit around watching him snore. He was almost fifty, he needed his rest. She was twenty-four, she needed to explore the yacht. Why waste a single moment of such a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience?
After changing into a polka-dot bikini and skimpy cover-up, she put her hair up in a ponytail and left the room.
A helpful steward directed her to the swimming pool, where she came upon Bianca and Luca Perez in the middle of a full-on laughter fit.
She was reluctant to disturb them, but Bianca waved her over and said, ‘Pull up a lounger and come join us. We’re catching up on old times.’
Lori immediately felt at ease. Even though Bianca and Luca were both enormously famous, she didn’t feel intimidated. Besides, they were way nearer to her age than Cliff.
‘You’re with Cliff Baxter, huh?’ Luca said. ‘I’m a big fan.’
Oh God! She was so sick of hearing those four words. Didn’t anyone have anything original to say? And surely he could come up with better than that?
‘How long have you and Cliff been together?’ Bianca enquired.
Another much-asked question.
‘A little over a year,’ Lori answered, settling on a lounger.
‘Hmm…’ Bianca mused, stretching out a perfect leg. ‘You think he’s marriage-minded?’
Lori bit her bottom lip. Wasn’t that a somewhat personal question coming from someone she barely knew? Besides, she was sure Bianca must read the entertainment rags, and it was a well-documented fact that Cliff Baxter had no intention of ever getting married. He was anti-marriage. He drove the point home in every interview he gave.
Before she could come up with a suitable reply, Luca saved the day. ‘Stop pestering the girl with questions,’ he said. ‘I want to find out if Aleksandr is marriage-minded — that’s what I want to know.’
‘Aleksandr is still married,’ Bianca pointed out, turning quite frosty. ‘He’s in the middle of getting a divorce.’
‘That’s what they all say.’
‘Don’t piss me off,’ Bianca snapped. ‘You know better than that.’
‘I guess that means no giant ring for Bianca,’ Luca teased.
‘And no giant ring for me either,’ Lori said, quickly taking the opportunity to bond with the famous super-model. ‘Cliff isn’t into the whole marriage bit. And quite frankly, neither am I. I’m too young.’
‘Oh honey,’ Bianca advised, nodding sagely, ‘a man like Cliff Baxter, you need to put a ring on it.’
‘Yeah, a cock ring,’ Luca said with a raucous chuckle.
Bianca dissolved into peals of laughter. ‘You’d better not talk like that around Aleksandr,’ she warned when she’d finished laughing. ‘He doesn’t appreciate dirty talk.’
‘What’s dirty about a cock ring?’ Luca asked innocently.
‘And I thought stardom might’ve changed you,’ Bianca chided. ‘But no, you’re still the same old potty mouth — thank God!’
‘Careful with the “old”,’ Luca warned. ‘Have you forgotten we’re almost the same age?’
‘I’m guessing you two have known each other a long time,’ Lori ventured, noting the camaraderie between them and wishing she had a friend like Luca.
‘Right,’ Bianca said. ‘I was nineteen and doing a swimsuit show in Rio. Luca was one of the boys in the background. Oh my God, he was totally edible!’
‘And how about you, missy,’ Luca said, joining in. ‘You were like a black Bond babe with a major kick-ass attitude.’
‘I couldn’t wait to jump his luscious bones,’ Bianca confided. ‘Only he wasn’t interested, even though he was supposedly straight at the time. Course, I understood immediately. Gay as a fruit fly — although he didn’t come out until years later, and that was only after one marriage, one son, and a red-hot career. Finally he emerged from the closet and I was vindicated.’
‘I love this woman,’ Luca said, raising his glass to toast her. ‘She never changes.’
‘You’d better believe it,’ Bianca said, calling for another round of champagne.
* * *
Flynn and Xuan were shown to their stateroom together as if they were a couple. Flynn was so shocked at seeing Sierra, that he didn’t really notice until Xuan demanded to know why they were supposed to share a bed.
‘This is ridiculous,’ she said, quite angry. ‘Did you plan this, Flynn, just to get me into bed? If you wanted to fuck me so badly, you should’ve said so.’
‘What?’ He stared at her, his mind taking him on a trip that he had no desire to go on.
‘We must have separate cabins,’ Xuan said firmly. ‘I demand it.’
‘You do, huh?’ Flynn said, narrowing his eyes.
‘I most certainly do,’ she retorted. ‘I will call for the steward.’
‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘You can’t do that.’
‘And exactly why can’t I do that?’ Xuan demanded.
‘Because I’m uh… kind of caught in a situation,’ he muttered, trying to get his head straight.
‘What situation?’ she wanted to know.
He didn’t care to tell Xuan the sad story of him and Sierra, but if he expected her to stay with him, then he’d better tell her something. And she had to stay with him. There was no way he could face being on this cruise alone — he had to at least give the impression he was with someone.
Why hadn’t he asked who the other guests would be?
Why had he walked blindly into hell, because seeing Sierra with Hammond was exactly that. Pure hell.
He was trapped. The yacht had sailed, and it was too late to get off.
* * *
15 years earlier
Sierra was not easy, like most of the girls Flynn encountered. After getting her number he called her several times. She blew him off. Finally he ran into her at a frat party, and when they got to talking, she offered to fix him up with her roommate, a raucous party girl who was more than hot to do whatever he fancied.
He fancied Sierra, and only her. There was no doubt about it. Not only was she cool and smart and achingly beautiful, she apparently had old-fashioned values, and his reputation as a player had obviously reached her.
But he persevered, and when they eventually began to date, he wasn’t that surprised to discover that sex wasn’t on the menu. ‘I’m not a casual girl,’ she informed him. ‘And I do not intend to start being one now.’
Was she a virgin? He didn’t dare ask. Instead he developed a close relationship with his right hand and kept the faith.
Sierra Snow. He would do anything for her, and eventually she would do anything for him.
They were together six months before they had sex. And it wasn’t just sex. It was a mind-blowing, loving, incredible experience of epic proportions.
Suddenly he’d dropped his plans of trekking around the world when he finished college. He only wanted one thing, and that was to be with Sierra forever. She told him that she felt the same way.
They swore to each other that even though they were both young, they would never allow anyone or anything to split them apart. They would drop out of college, travel the world together and share every adventure out there.
Then one day he’d received an urgent call from his grandmother in the UK informing him that his grandfather had been rushed to the hospital, and that she needed him to fly to England immediately.
Sierra drove him to the airport. She hugged him tightly and pledged her undying love. He promised he would come back as soon as he could.
A week later he received a FedEx envelope marked High Priority. It came from a name and address in Los Angeles he did not know. Inside the envelope were half a dozen photos of Sierra in various stages of undress with several different males. One of them was Hammond Patterson. Sierra looked dreamy, almost happy, with the little half-smile on her face that Flynn knew only too well.
SHE WAS ENJOYING HERSELF.
There was a typed note enclosed.
STOP BELIEVING YOUR SO-CALLED GIRLFRIEND IS PERFECT.
OPEN YOUR EYES AND SEE THE TRUTH.
He felt a sickness and rage he had never experienced before. He felt betrayed and hollow inside.
Why had she professed undying love?
Why had she spent all those months play-acting something that didn’t exist?
And what was she doing with Hammond Patterson?
His fury knew no bounds. He wanted to get on the next plane to L.A. and confront her.
But he couldn’t. His grandfather was not expected to live much longer and his grandmother needed him.
He was stuck in England, and there was nothing he could do about it.
When Cruz Mendoza wasn’t out causing mayhem on the high seas, he was a lazy son of a bitch, spending his days lolling by Sergei Zukov’s pool in Acapulco, wearing nothing more than a skimpy man-thong while entertaining hookers he’d picked up the night before at some dubious night club in town. It made a pleasant change from life in his guarded compound in Somalia, where he always had to tread carefully, for he had many enemies intent on taking over his lucrative business.
Although only in his early forties, Cruz appeared to be much older. He was stocky and balding, with weather-beaten skin, two prominent gold front teeth, and a pronounced limp — the result of being shot in the thigh by an irate husband who’d caught him screwing his sixteen-year-old trophy wife. Cruz had gotten his revenge by persuading the sixteen year old to run off with him, then dumping her when he’d had enough.
Watching Cruz play was putting Sergei on edge. Cruz had insisted that everything was set, but the way Ina’s brother was sitting around bothered him.
‘Relax,’ Cruz told him. ‘We strike at the right moment. My contact on the yacht tells me everything, an’ here in town my men wait for me to give ’em the word. We let the rich motherfuckers get comfortable on their fuckin’ yacht trip, then we move in when I say so. I’ve done this a hundred times, an’ believe me, surprise always works.’
‘So there’s no way you’ll fuck it up?’ Sergei growled.
‘No, Sergei,’ Cruz retorted with a slight sneer, a sneer that Sergei did not appreciate. ‘I’m as dependable as takin’ a daily shit.’
Sergei knew that Ina’s brother was a slippery son of a bitch. He wouldn’t put it past him to try and pull something.
Then again, Cruz wasn’t stupid. He must realize that to fuck with Sergei Zukov would be beyond dumb.
Sergei was impatient, but Cruz was confident that everything was on course.
Only time would tell.
Aleksandr sat alone and thoughtful on the private deck outside the master suite, smoking a cigar. He was satisfied that the long-planned-for trip was finally underway. There had been a moment in time when he’d sensed that everything might fall apart after he and Bianca had exchanged heated words. She could be so headstrong and unpredictable, who knew what she might do? However, once she’d seen that he’d named the yacht after her, she’d melted — exactly as he’d hoped she would, and here they were, everything on track.
Bianca was like a world-class racehorse, difficult to tame, but apart from the occasional incident, such as the inappropriate photos on the Internet, all was going well.
Unfortunately, his ongoing battle with his wife continued to heat up. What a difficult and spiteful woman Rushana had turned out to be. There had been affairs before — Aleksandr would be the first to admit that he’d never been a faithful husband. Only in the past, Rushana had chosen to ignore his infidelities. It wasn’t until Bianca had entered his life, and his request for a divorce, that Rushana had turned into a vindictive bitch. She was getting everything she wanted financially, but it seemed that wasn’t enough for her. Oh no, her anger that he was with a world-famous super-model infuriated her beyond belief. Rushana was desperate to see him single and alone, pining for the family he’d once had.
Bianca’s latest escapade had only fuelled the fire, giving Rushana some powerful new ammunition. ‘I will not have my daughters in the company of such a prostitute,’ she’d screamed at his lawyers, along with other insults. ‘Until Aleksandr stops being with that tramp, there will be no divorce. And I will not allow him to see our children.’
It was not a happy situation, although he was sure that once Rushana realized that he had no intention of leaving Bianca, she would be forced to give in.
Rushana’s fury and jealousy had not changed his plans. He still intended to ask Bianca to be his wife, and if he had his way, by the end of the trip they would be engaged.
* * *
Drinks at five thirty on the top deck. The sun slowly setting in the clear sky. Champagne and canapés being served on silver trays by Mercedes and Renee, the two stewardesses. Den, the barman, standing attentively behind the bar. Soft Brazilian music wafting from hidden speakers.
Bianca made her entrance in a white Valentino backless dress, Aleksandr close behind her in a long-sleeved black sweater and pants.
Although Aleksandr was twenty years older than Bianca, they made a good-looking couple. A fact that did not escape Guy, who was on hand, supervising his staff. As entertainment director, Guy was very hands-on, always there to anticipate the boss’s every need. This was the first time he’d worked for Aleksandr Kasianenko — of course he knew who the man was, who didn’t? Before hooking up with Bianca, Aleksandr had managed to keep a low profile, but once they were together his cover was blown. The words ‘billionaire businessman’ and ‘Russian oligarch’ were forever attached to his name.
Poor sod, Guy thought, watching the famous couple. It has to be a real downer, everyone knowing all your crap.
Guy had recently viewed the raunchy and uncensored images of Bianca on his laptop. He considered her to be a feisty little minx, and he couldn’t help wondering how Aleksandr felt about his famous girlfriend flashing her pussy for all the world to see. The man was probably major pissed. Guy knew he would be if it was his boyfriend flashing his dick for public consumption.
Luca and Jeromy appeared on deck at exactly five thirty, both in white suits. Checking them out, Guy considered them to be an odd coupling. Luca was hot, Jeromy not. What hidden talents did the gorgeous blond super-star see in the tall, skinny Englishman?
Oh well, everyone to their own. Although Guy had to admit that he wouldn’t say no to a run around the track with Luca Perez. He was some Latin hottie!
Mercedes immediately sprang into action, offering the couple champagne or a drink of their choice, speaking to Luca in Spanish.
Guy didn’t know what Captain Dickson was so concerned about. The women on the yacht were all so bloody beautiful, why would a pretty young Mexican girl threaten any of them? Mercedes was perfectly suitable for her job. She was also appropriately dressed in a smart nautical uniform, so no one would mistake her for anything other than a hard-working and eager-to-please member of the crew. He liked Renee and Den too. They were fellow Australians like him, and they both seemed to know what they were doing.
The next couple to arrive for cocktails were Ashley and Taye. Aleksandr stepped forward to greet them. As a football fanatic he wanted to spend time speaking with Taye, picking his brain about the team he was in talks to buy. He beckoned Taye towards him, and the two men moved over to a quiet corner of the deck.
Ashley immediately zeroed in on Luca. ‘I can’t believe we’ve never met before,’ she enthused. ‘You being with Jeromy and all, and me being Jeromy’s partner. It’s so lovely to finally meet you. I’m a big fan.’
Cliff and Lori approached just in time for Lori to overhear Ashley’s — ‘I’m a big fan.’
Here we go again, Lori thought. Everyone’s a big fan of everyone else. What a clusterfuck!
‘Luca!’ Cliff exclaimed. ‘I was making a movie in Puerto Rico last year, an’ I managed to catch your concert. That was some wild performance.’
Please don’t say it, Lori silently begged. Please, please, please!
‘I’m a big fan,’ Cliff added.
Shit! Lori thought. You too.
‘Oh, and this is Lori,’ Cliff continued, introducing her as if she was some kind of an afterthought.
‘Lori an’ me — we’re old friends,’ Luca said, winking at her in a knowing way like he totally got it. ‘Isn’t that right, cariño?’
‘You two know each other?’ Cliff said, a look of puzzlement on his face.
‘We go way back,’ Luca explained. ‘We were hangin’ out by the pool today, catching up.’
Lori experienced a small shiver of triumph. She wasn’t just an appendage on Cliff Baxter’s arm, she was a person in her own right.
At which point Ashley and her cascade of blond curls moved, in big time; grabbing Cliff by the arm, she whisked him away.
‘Thanks,’ Lori muttered to Luca, who patted her on the arm and said, ‘I get it, sweet thing. Been there. Done that. You should know that when I was first married to Suga, nobody knew who the hell I was. I was simply the pretty boy in the background, and unless I was attached to Suga’s arm, nobody gave a fast shit.’
‘Then you totally understand,’ Lori said, relieved that at least someone was aware of exactly how she felt.
‘You bet I do,’ Luca said. ‘Don’t sweat it, bonita. We’re all here to have fun and relax. You’re one of us now. Enjoy.’
‘Enjoy what?’ Bianca said, creeping up behind them.
‘Everything!’ Luca exclaimed, indicating the sunset. ‘This is spectacular.’
‘We aim to please,’ Bianca said with a Cheshire cat grin. It is spectacular, she thought, looking around and taking everything in. It’s way over the top, and I love it!
One thing about Aleksandr, he did not disappoint. He was a man of style, and she was looking forward to seven days of utter bliss.
* * *
Meanwhile, down in their stateroom, Hammond was taking his fury out on Sierra.
‘WHAT THE FUCK?’ he screamed at her. ‘You tell me what that loser bastard is doing on this trip.’
Sierra knew better than to answer him. She merely listened to him rant on about how much he hated Flynn Hudson.
‘He’s nothing but a low-life scumbag,’ Hammond yelled. ‘Why is he here? How did this happen? Why didn’t you get a list of guests?’ A pause for breath. ‘You know something? You’re useless. You probably wanted the son of a bitch here, the loser you used to fuck. How I could touch you after you’ve had his cock inside you is beyond me.’ Another pause. ‘Let’s not forget you were damaged goods and I fucking saved you. I’ve given you a life you can be proud of and this is how you repay me?’
Sierra watched him closely. His face was red with fury, his eyes were bulging. He was acting like a raving lunatic and blaming her for Flynn being aboard.
She chose to remain silent. She chose to close her mind to the broken heart she’d suffered when Flynn had betrayed her. It was all too painful to remember.
* * *
15 years earlier
Just like that, Flynn stopped calling. Sierra couldn’t understand why until she received a FedEx envelope marked High Priority. She opened the envelope and there they were — six graphic photos of Flynn with six different girls.
At first she couldn’t believe it, but after studying the photos she had no choice but to accept the worst. There was a typed note enclosed.
STOP BELIEVING YOUR SO-CALLED BOYFRIEND IS PERFECT.
OPEN YOUR EYES AND SEE THE TRUTH.
A week later, she realized she was pregnant. Heartbroken and alone, she confided everything to Hammond Patterson, who had been coming around to see her ever since Flynn left. Hammond had told her that Flynn had asked him to look out for her. At first she’d been surprised, for she’d not realized that Flynn and Hammond were at all close. But Hammond had turned out to be the rock she’d needed to lean on. He was there for her in every way. He even offered to pay for an abortion, insisting it was the right thing for her to do.
She’d declined his offer, but he’d persuaded her to go to a party with him that night. At the party they’d both had too much to drink — especially Hammond, and while he was driving her home in his newly acquired Ferrari — a present from his adoring mother, he’d started coming on to her — one hand on the steering wheel, the other groping her breasts and between her legs.
She had never considered Hammond anything other than a friend, and his sudden attack shocked and upset her. She slapped his hand away, but he was determined.
Neither of them saw the oncoming car. Neither of them realized the danger. The rest was a blur as the Ferrari hit the other vehicle and immediately overturned, throwing Sierra out.
She suffered a broken pelvis and lost the baby.
Hammond suffered a damaged ego and walked away without a scratch.
Rumours abounded, and it wasn’t long before the whispers on campus were that Sierra had been pregnant with Hammond’s baby. Hammond said nothing to deny it — in fact, he promoted the story.
Still in the UK, Flynn heard the gossip and that was it for him. By the time he returned to the US, Sierra had dropped out of college and was back in New York with her parents.
They never spoke again.
Sierra and Hammond arrived at the cocktail gathering shortly before it ended, due to the fact that Hammond could not seem to stop himself from spewing venom about Flynn and how he hated him, and why was he on this supposedly exclusive trip?
Sierra had continued to remain silent while her husband paced up and down venting his fury, although she was somewhat confused as to why Hammond was so angry. Hadn’t he and Flynn been friends, even roommates, at one time? Wasn’t he the one that Flynn had asked to watch out for her? Was his anger due to the fact that Flynn had treated her so shabbily? And if so, why was he taking it out on her?
It didn’t make sense. She was the one who should be upset, not Hammond.
When they finally left their stateroom and joined the others, Sierra made sure she had no contact with Flynn whatsoever. She stayed by Hammond’s side playing her role of good wife, although her stomach was churning and she did not dare to glance in Flynn’s direction.
Not that she wanted to. He was the man who’d broken her heart into a thousand little pieces, and she could never forgive him for that.
After the car accident and the loss of her baby she’d spent time travelling across Europe visiting relatives, finally returning to her family in New York where she’d taken up social work, counselling young victims of rape and abuse. It was hard work, but she found it fulfilling. It was exactly what she needed.
Eventually she’d moved out of her parents’ home and settled into an apartment with a girl she worked with. Soon she’d started dating sporadically — nothing serious, until one day she’d run into Hammond, now an up-and-coming lawyer with big political aspirations, at a fundraiser.
At first he’d complained that he’d tried to contact her and she’d never returned his calls. Then he’d proceeded to court her in a way she’d found hard to resist. He’d been so damn charming, honest and committed to doing all kinds of worthwhile work which really impressed her. No longer the drunken horny student who’d been responsible for their horrific car accident, he seemed like a changed man with a definite purpose in life, and although she didn’t love him in the way she’d once loved Flynn, he’d finally worn her down, and she’d said yes to his marriage proposal. ‘Together we can change the world,’ he’d promised, and naively she’d believed him.
They were married in Connecticut at her family’s house. It was a lavish wedding, exactly the way Hammond wanted it. Her parents had influential friends and they all turned out, so did his family. Hammond used the occasion to cement future connections.
It took a year or so before she realized she’d made a horrible mistake. By that time it was too late. She was Hammond’s wife, a major political asset. And one thing she knew for sure — he would never let her go.
* * *
‘Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served,’ Guy announced. He had seen and heard that very line spoken in a series of old movies and he thought it sounded perfect. It gave him the personality and identity he imagined he deserved.
Guy always hoped the guests not only noticed him, but depended on him for anything they might need, for being noticed and appreciated meant a much larger tip at the end of the voyage. He always made a bet in his own mind about who would turn out to be the most generous tipper. On this trip it would be Aleksandr, although one could never be too sure.
Luca perhaps — famous singers were known for their generosity. However, Luca’s miserable English partner was bound to be a penny-pincher.
The politician? No. Politicians raised money and were all notoriously stingy when it came to parting with their own.
Well then, there was always the movie star, Mr Cliff Baxter himself. Except Guy knew from past experience that movie stars expected everything for free in exchange for their illustrious presence.
Which left Taye Sherwin, a fine working-class lad who’d done well for himself. And Flynn, the journalist — a man who probably didn’t believe in tipping.
Guy made a note to himself to drop the word — maybe to the movie-star’s girlfriend — that all guests were expected to tip the crew for services rendered.
One of the things Guy most enjoyed on a cruise was getting to know everyone’s secrets, and on a boat, secrets were hard to hide. If he didn’t find out for himself, the maids or other crew members were always quick to fill him in.
Life on a luxury yacht with guests aboard was very much an Upstairs Downstairs experience. With this group, Guy expected mucho gossip.
‘Dinner is served,’ he announced for the second time, repeating his words loudly because nobody seemed to be moving — they were all having too good a time.
‘Thanks, Guy,’ Bianca responded, waving her well-toned arms in the air. ‘Let’s go everyone, I’m starving!’
* * *
‘What a fab table-setting!’ Ashley exclaimed as the guests approached an elegant oval table located on the middle deck. The table was decorated with cut-glass vases containing beautiful white roses — Bianca’s favourite flower. There was also exquisite crystal stemware, gleaming silver cutlery, black and silver dishes, and tall white candles in ornate holders. The result was a photo-perfect table.
‘Please all find your place-cards,’ Bianca announced, a tad mischievously. ‘I placed everyone myself, ’cause I’d like you all to get to know each other. I promise to change it up every day, so look out!’
‘Trust you to mix it up,’ Luca said, admiring his old friend’s style. ‘Who am I next to tonight?’
Bianca snapped her fingers and Guy handed her a list.
‘Looks like you’ve got Taye on one side and Ashley on the other,’ she said. ‘Hmm, Luca, a Sherwin sandwich. Think you can handle it?’
‘You know I can,’ Luca boasted.
Jeromy scowled. He did not appreciate the thought of Luca getting too friendly with the Sherwins. ‘And where might I be?’ he asked snippily.
Bianca consulted her list; she’d spent quite some time deciding where to seat everyone. ‘Let me see,’ she said. ‘You’re between two beautiful women. Sierra Patterson and Lori.’
‘Lori?’ Jeromy questioned with a slight sneer, even though he knew full well who Lori was. She was the nobody redhead attached to the movie star.
Bianca chose to ignore Jeromy because he irritated her. Surely Luca could have come up with someone more exciting than this uptight turd? She turned to Cliff Baxter. ‘You’re sitting next to me,’ she said warmly. ‘And I expect you to tell me exactly what it’s like being labelled the Sexiest Man Alive.’
‘Pure hell,’ Cliff responded with a self-deprecating grin. ‘Women throwing themselves at me. Guys too. It’s a miracle I make it through the day.’
‘Ah, but I’m sure that you manage somehow,’ Bianca teased, licking her full lips.
‘I try,’ Cliff said with a jaunty wink. ‘It’s not easy.’
‘You’re seated next to Flynn Hudson,’ Bianca said, turning to Sierra and taking her arm in a friendly fashion. ‘I thought you two might have things in common. Aleksandr says Flynn’s a very smart journalist and writer, so I’m sure you’ll find him interesting.’
‘Really,’ Sierra murmured, her heart skipping a beat.
‘By the way,’ Bianca continued, ‘it’s a pleasure to finally meet you — and your husband’s charming.’
Charming? Sierra thought. This woman should only know the real truth.
‘Yes,’ Bianca continued. ‘Aleksandr is quite a supporter. He thinks that Hammond has great potential to make big changes in America.’
‘Does he?’ Sierra said, thinking how easy it was to fool people.
‘Yes, he does, and Aleksandr is usually right.’
‘Good to know.’
‘So?’ Bianca said cheekily. ‘How would you feel about becoming the First Lady?’
First Lady indeed. Sierra swallowed hard. Thank God for the two Xanax she’d managed to take before leaving their cabin. The drugs had dulled her senses, leaving her in a dreamy state. Still, at the thought of sitting next to Flynn she felt her heart accelerate and a sweep of total panic overcame her.
Stay calm, a voice screamed in her head. Do not lose control. You can do it.
Yes, you can.
* * *
Jeromy shot Lori a patronizing look. Why did he have to get seated next to the only nonentity on the boat? Would he be forced to talk to her? A word or two simply to be polite, after that she was on her own.
‘How are you, dear?’ he sniffed.
‘I’m fine,’ Lori replied, thinking that it was just her luck to get stuck with Luca’s uptight English boyfriend. ‘And you?’
‘Lucky you,’ she drawled, aware that he was as unthrilled to be sitting next to her as she was to him.
‘Excuse me?’ Jeromy said, not appreciating her tone.
‘Well… “perfect” kind of says it all.’
Jeromy’s back stiffened. Was this girl trying to wind him up? Big mistake if she was.
* * *
‘I was hoping I’d get next to you,’ Ashley said, leaning into Cliff as she took her seat beside him.
‘You were?’ Cliff said, taking in her curvy blondness. ‘In that case, I’ll try my best not to disappoint.’
‘Oh, you don’t have to try,’ Ashley said, fluttering her fake lashes. ‘Just looking at you is enough for me.’
Shit! Cliff sighed. A boatload of interesting people, and I get the starry-eyed fan.
‘I’ve seen all your movies,’ Ashley continued, twirling a strand of her long blond hair through her fingers. ‘My mum used to take me when I was little. She had a huge crush on you.’
‘Did she now?’
‘And even though I was only ten, I did too,’ Ashley admitted coyly.
‘That’s flattering,’ Cliff said smoothly.
‘I still do,’ Ashley said, adding a quick, ‘only don’t tell my husband, he’s dead jealous.’
Fuck! Cliff thought. Where’s Lori when I need her?
* * *
Glancing down the table, Aleksandr was pleased to see his guests having an engaging time. The first course, a lobster and crab salad, was being served, and the finest of wines were flowing. He stared at Bianca seated at the other end of the table. She looked so staggeringly beautiful, her dark skin gleaming in the flickering candlelight, her green eyes flashing as she spoke with Flynn.
Aleksandr was satisfied that he had captured a prize worth having. Bianca might be famous, but she was all his, and being with her was worth all the drama his wife was busy creating. Soon he would be free of Rushana, and then Bianca would be totally his.
Watching her, he suddenly experienced a strong surge of sexual desire. Xuan was seated on his left, Hammond Patterson on his right; they were having a spirited conversation across him.
Aleksandr moved his chair aside and stood up. ‘Excuse me for a few moments,’ he said. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He headed straight for Bianca. ‘I need to show you something,’ he said, leaning down and whispering in her ear.
‘What?’ she responded.
‘I need to show you now.’
‘Now?’ Bianca said, somewhat bemused.
‘Now,’ Aleksandr stated firmly.
Bianca rose from the table. ‘Two minutes,’ she said to her guests.
Aleksandr took her hand and led her along the side of the yacht to where it was dark and deserted — the only sound was the sea lapping against the stern.
‘Tell me,’ Bianca said. ‘Is something the matter?’
‘Not unless you consider this something,’ Aleksandr said, jamming her hand against the bulge in his pants.
Bianca gave a low throaty chuckle. ‘Oh my!’ she sighed, getting excited at the thought of what was to come. ‘You’re kidding? In the middle of dinner?’
‘Are you wearing panties?’
‘As if I could in this dress…’
Aleksandr hurriedly unzipped, grunted and grabbed the front of her thighs, pushing her dress up high.
She leaned back against the boat railings and lifted her long slender legs, enclosing them tightly around his waist.
Without hesitation he plunged deeply inside her, and after several vigorous thrusts he was done.
‘Wow!’ Bianca exclaimed as they disengaged. ‘What’s up with you?’
‘You didn’t like it?’
‘Oh, you know I liked it.’
‘I will not neglect you,’ Aleksandr promised, his voice a deep dark whisper. ‘Later I will suck your pussy like it’s never been sucked before. Only right now, my dear, we have guests to attend to.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Bianca said obediently, deciding that Aleksandr was the sexiest man she’d ever encountered, and there had been many.
* * *
Sierra took a long deep breath. Even though they were sitting next to each other, she had not turned in Flynn’s direction, and he had not acknowledged her. However, with Bianca away from the table she felt forced to say something. After all, what had happened between them was old news, many years had passed, and Flynn had obviously never cared. It had all been a game to him. Just another conquest.
The thought occurred — maybe he didn’t even remember her?
She decided on a light approach. Let him see that the way he’d treated her had not affected her one little bit.
‘Flynn?’ she said. Keep it light. Keep it casual. ‘It is you, isn’t it?’
The staff cabins on The Bianca were quite compact, with two bunk beds in each and a communal bathroom for every three cabins to share. There was no privacy as such, which pissed Mercedes off because she had things to do. She was sharing with the other stewardess, Renee, a tall Australian girl who had a dark-blond ponytail, long legs and horse teeth. Renee had only been on one cruise before. She’d gotten the job because her uncle had once played rugby with Guy, and her uncle had called in a favour.
‘You take the top bunk,’ Mercedes ordered when they’d first arrived.
Renee, a somewhat timid girl, bowed down to whatever Mercedes wanted.
This suited Mercedes fine. She liked taking the boss position, and it was good to know that Renee was no threat to what she had to accomplish. And what she had to accomplish was something she’d done many times before.
Seduce the enemy.
And who was the enemy?
Kyril, Aleksandr Kasianenko’s security guard.
The burly Russian was a challenge, and Mercedes was always up for a challenge. She’d learned early on that most men were easy as shit. Offer them a blow-job, a fuck, a walk on the wild side — and if they didn’t think it was a trap, they were all in. Even the married ones. Especially the married ones.
It hadn’t taken Mercedes long to check Kyril out. He had his own communication room, and direct contact to Aleksandr. It seemed Aleksandr had wished to keep this trip low-key, so his security was not as stringent as it probably was on land.
It amazed Mercedes that, however powerful and important people were, they always operated under the illusion that vacations were safe havens. Crap. Vacations were the best time to strike. Everyone lying around relaxed and happy, more concerned about their suntans than anything else. Too much food, too much wine, it was all the perfect recipe for a short sharp strike, which is exactly what Cruz and his team excelled at. Take the vessel over, demand a large ransom, then as soon as it was paid — get out fast.
Yes, Cruz certainly knew what he was doing. Over the last few years he’d become quite a legend in the piracy business.
Mercedes had been working alongside him since she was eight. She was now twenty-two, and a key member of his team. The inside girl. The girl nobody ever suspected. And that’s because she was good at what she did, oh so very good.
After serving cocktails and canapés, Mercedes had alerted Renee to cover for her while she slipped down to their cabin. ‘I got a little tummy problem,’ she informed Renee, who was as gullible as a virgin locked in a hotel room with a sailor on shore leave. ‘Keep ’em happy, I’ll be quick.’
‘What about Guy?’ Renee worried. ‘He won’t be pleased if you’re missing.’
‘Don’t worry about Guy, he’ll never notice I’m gone. An’ if he does, tell him I’m checkin’ on the table.’
Once she got down to their cabin, Mercedes pulled out her iPad from under her mattress and sent Cruz an informative email abut activities on the yacht, plus a crudely drawn map of the layout.
Cruz was a stickler for details. He required information about the crew, the guests, every move they made, and it was up to her to supply it.
Once done, she erased her message, and hurried back to tend to the esteemed guests.
Esteemed guests, my fine Mexican ass, she thought. The women are all whores fucking men for their money. While the men are pathetic assholes.
Mercedes did not have a very positive view of the human race, which was hardly surprising considering the life she’d led. Her mother had died in childbirth, leaving her to be raised by a series of her poppa’s conquests — women who came and went on a regular basis, most of them prostitutes. Cruz had put her to work at the age of eight, picking the pockets of tourists in Mexico City. It was more rewarding than school any day, and she’d soon become the best pickpocket in town. Realizing his young daughter’s potential, Cruz had started using her for other jobs. After all, who better than a child to gain entry to his burglary jobs? His kid could slide through any open window, however small, and doggie doors were no problem either.
A day after Mercedes celebrated her twelfth birthday, Cruz was arrested and sent to prison. Mercedes found herself dumped into foster care. Not prepared to be the victim of some horny old foster dad, she’d run away and survived the streets — honing her criminal skills, until eventually she hooked up with a twenty-year-old man who’d thought she was sixteen. They’d taken residence in an abandoned bus outside Mexico City, and two abortions later she’d dumped her boyfriend and was waiting patiently outside the prison gates the day Cruz was released. She was fifteen.
Cruz had learned plenty in prison; he considered his time in the joint an education. Number one on his list of things to do when he got out, was to leave Mexico.
Taking his kid with him hadn’t factored into his plans, but there she was, loyal as ever. He’d felt obliged to organize forged papers for the two of them, and they’d taken off for Somalia to meet up with a Somalian man with whom Cruz had formed a strong connection in prison.
And so Cruz’s adventures in piracy had begun, with Mercedes right along for the ride.
Goddamm it, Flynn thought. What was he supposed to do? What was he supposed to say? The love of his life was sitting next to him AND WHAT THE FUCK…
‘Hey, Sierra,’ he said, making out as if he’d only just noticed her. ‘Yeah, of course it’s me. Long time no see.’ Casual enough? Jesus Christ. Talk about reverting to his teenage years.
‘Yes, it has been a long time,’ she replied, turning to him with a fixed smile. ‘I wasn’t sure…’
‘Do I look that different?’ he said, keeping it cool.
‘No, I… uh…’ she stammered, lost for words.
‘You and old Ham,’ he said, clearing his throat. ‘Who’d’ve thought?’
‘I know,’ she murmured, taking a hearty gulp of wine and then holding onto her glass so tightly that she hoped it wouldn’t break.
‘I was kind of surprised when I heard.’
Really, Flynn. Surprised? Did you just imagine I’d vanish off the face of the earth once you were done with me?
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.
He hasn’t changed, Sierra thought. He’s still Flynn. So handsome, with the ice-blue eyes she remembered so well. No longer a boy, he now was a man with lines on his face that revealed traces of a life lived. His hair was longer. The stubble on his chin was new — or perhaps not.
How was she to know? He was a stranger.
A stranger whose baby had grown inside her for a few short weeks. And he’d never known about the baby. How sad was that?
‘Are you and uh… Xuan… married?’ she asked, breaking the strained silence.
The moment she’d asked the question she could’ve kicked herself. Why ask something so dumb? What did she care if he was married or not?
I do care! a voice screamed in her head. I care because I still love him.
Oh, for God’s sake! You do not.
Yes, I do.
Stop thinking that way.
‘Not married,’ Flynn said, scrutinizing her beautiful face. Was she happy? She didn’t look it. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes seemed empty. And she was slurring her words ever so slightly. Was she drinking too much? Way back, one shot of anything was her limit, now she was gulping wine like it was going out of style.
‘Why not?’ she managed, continuing to ask questions she didn’t want to hear come out of her mouth.
Flynn shrugged. Why not? Because you screwed up my head when it came to women. You made it impossible for me to trust in any relationship. You ruined me, Sierra. You fucking ruined me.
‘Dunno,’ he answered vaguely. ‘It’s just one of those things.’
‘Well,’ she said, wishing she could close her eyes and drift off into a deep sleep and not have to deal with this, ‘she seems lovely.’
‘She is,’ Flynn said.
And at that moment, to their mutual relief, Bianca returned to the table, a smile on her lips as she grabbed her wine glass and took a long lingering sip. ‘Did I miss anything?’ she asked playfully.
‘Nothing,’ Flynn said quickly. ‘Nothing at all.’
* * *
After his brief and irritating few words with Lori, Jeromy turned his full attention towards Sierra Patterson. She was a beautiful and stylish woman, and rumours abounded that one day in the not-too distant future, her husband, Hammond, might make a run for President of America. And of course, if he did, the very serene and lovely Sierra would be by his side. So she was definitely someone on top of Jeromy’s ‘get to know’ list.
He turned to her with an ingratiating smile, exhibiting his not so perfect English teeth. ‘Tell me, Mrs Patterson,’ he said, all smarm and charm, ‘have you ever visited our fair city?’
Dazed and confused by her conversation with Flynn, Sierra had no desire to talk to anyone. ‘Excuse me?’ she said politely.
Jeromy repeated his question.
‘Your fair what?’ she asked, still thinking about Flynn.
‘London, England,’ Jeromy said, a tad sharply. Why wasn’t she paying him more attention? Wasn’t he good enough for her?
‘Oh, are you English?’ she enquired, attempting to rally.
Surely his clipped and very proper accent had given her a clue? The woman seemed somewhat out of it.
‘Born and bred,’ he informed her. And then in case she hadn’t realized that he and Luca were a couple, he quickly added, ‘Luca and I first met in London two years ago. We’ve been together ever since.’
‘That’s nice,’ Sierra answered vaguely. ‘Is Luca here?’
Good God! Was the woman drunk? Or simply dense?
‘Sitting right across from us,’ he said, indicating Luca, who was in the middle of an animated conversation with Taye.
‘Ah, yes,’ Sierra murmured, signalling a stewardess to refill her wine glass.
Hardly Jackie Kennedy, Jeromy thought. Why am I even bothering? And what the hell does Luca find so interesting about Taye Sherwin?
* * *
Since Jeromy Milton-Gold had an obvious stick up his ass, Lori decided to work her charms on Hammond Patterson. He seemed like a friendly enough dude with his neat haircut and honest brown eyes. She needed to get something going, because Ashley, the footballer’s wife, was busy fawning all over Cliff.
All Lori knew about Hammond Patterson was that he was a Senator, and his wife was some kind of do-gooder socialite fashion-plate. But so what? Since moving in with Cliff, Lori realized she could talk to anyone and be accepted; it was one of the main cachets of being a very famous movie star’s number one girlfriend. May as well take advantage of it while she could.
‘I don’t know much about politics,’ she said brightly, attracting Hammond’s attention. ‘Only I do know that you’ve got the look.’
‘And what look would that be?’ Hammond asked, his eyes sliding down to take in his dinner partner’s cleavage.
‘You know,’ Lori said with a flirty smile. ‘Handsome. Trustworthy. The American public totally gets off on a handsome candidate. If Cliff ran, they’d vote for him tomorrow.’
‘I’m not sure whether I should be insulted or flattered,’ Hammond said, liking what he saw. And what he saw was young and pretty with nice firm tits. He had an insatiable craving for youthful flesh; it always turned him on — it was his addiction.
‘Try flattered,’ Lori said, noting he was easy prey. ‘Because let’s call it like it is, Senator — you are a very good-looking man. But I’m sure your wife must tell you that all the time.’
‘Ah, my wife…’ Hammond said, letting the words hang in the air.
‘She’s beautiful,’ Lori remarked.
‘And so are you, my dear,’ Hammond said, suppressing an urge to reach out and touch her tender flesh, maybe even stroke her tempting red hair.
‘It’s all an illusion,’ Lori said modestly.
‘Some illusion,’ Hammond said, ogling her breasts.
‘And they’re real, too,’ she murmured, encouraging him.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, raising his eyes. ‘Was I staring?’
‘Only a little,’ she said with a bold smile. ‘However, I never said I minded.’
* * *
And while Lori and Hammond were embarking on a flirtatious journey, Xuan and Aleksandr were involved in a deep discussion about Russian politics and the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties.
‘Without that happening you would never have amassed the fortune you have today,’ Xuan pointed out.
‘Maybe. Maybe not,’ Aleksandr countered. ‘It’s all relative.’
‘Tell that to the people who lost everything.’
‘Have you ever been to Russia?’ Aleksandr asked, intrigued by this opinionated and quite smart Asian woman. His old friend, Flynn, had picked well.
‘Once,’ Xuan replied. ‘I was researching a story on a Russian pop singer, supposedly your version of Lady GaGa. We walked through Red Square in Moscow accompanied by a camera crew and her army of bodyguards.’
‘Ah, you must mean Masha,’ Aleksandr said. ‘She is quite the personality.’
‘Personality or not, her bodyguards shoved and threw people out of the way as if they were garbage. And no one objected. No one complained. It was as if they were resigned to the fact that being treated like shit was perfectly okay. I didn’t like seeing that.’
‘In Russia, people know their place.’
‘You mean people without money and status.’
Aleksandr shrugged. ‘Never judge a country until you have lived there.’
‘I prefer not to.’
‘Not to what?’
‘I’m not sure I was inviting you,’ Aleksandr said, quite amused.
‘And if you were,’ Xuan retorted. ‘I’m not sure I would accept your invitation.’
* * *
Later, when most of the guests had gotten to know each other, liqueurs, coffee and dessert were served on the upper deck.
Partners reunited under the starry sky. Bianca sat on Aleksandr’s lap rubbing the back of his neck, thinking of the love they would make later and revelling in this amazing trip that was all in her honour.
‘Cliff Baxter is such a nice guy,’ Ashley confided to Taye, still tingling with the pleasure of sitting next to the movie star.
‘Yeah, so’s that Luca bloke,’ Taye responded. ‘Knows a lot about sport, an’ y’know somethin’? He doesn’t come across as gay at all.’
‘But he’s with Jeromy,’ Ashley said, glancing across the deck to see who Cliff was speaking to.
‘So are you,’ Taye pointed out.
‘I’m in business with Jeromy,’ Ashley insisted. ‘I’m not sleeping with him.
‘That’s a relief,’ Taye joked.
‘Anyway, you know what?’
‘I’ve been thinking that it’s about time I branched out on my own.’
‘C’mon, toots,’ Taye groaned. ‘I’m not puttin’ up more money.’
‘Why not?’ Ashley said, bristling. ‘Don’t you think I’m worth it?’
Tread carefully, Taye warned himself. If you want some nookie tonight, be mindful of what you say.
‘’Course you are, sweetheart,’ he assured her. ‘You’re worth every penny in my pocket.’
‘Then can I do it?’
‘I can’t give you an answer now. We’ll have to talk to my business manager an’ shit.’
‘But you’re sayin’ that you’ll think about it?’ she pressed.
Ashley gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘I have a feeling that Cliff Baxter fancies me,’ she said, preening.
‘Why wouldn’t he? You’re totally shaggable.’
‘You think?’ she said, going all coquettish on him.
‘You heard it here first.’
And yes, tonight he would get lucky, for Cliff Baxter had already done the groundwork for him.
Thanks, Mister Big Shot. I owe it all to you!
Another spectacular morning. Clear blue skies, the Sea of Cortez calm and inviting, a light breeze wafting in the air.
Breakfast was laid out on the upper deck. Mercedes and Renee were standing by, ready to be of service. Den stood behind the bar, Mimosas at the ready.
Lori was the first up, leaving Cliff snoring in their room. The Sexiest Man Alive indeed. Surely they meant the Loudest Snorer Alive? Lori giggled to herself as she imagined the headline on the cover of People magazine. How many of Cliff’s adoring public would believe their icon was a major snorer? Not so many.
Lori remembered the first time she’d spent the night with Cliff. She’d been in shock at the noise he’d made. The sound emitting from his mouth was like a freight train rumbling through a station, in tandem with a snorting pig. And when she’d mentioned it to him, he’d casually said, ‘You don’t like the noise, stay out of the bedroom.’
So she’d purchased extra noise-blocking earplugs, and now she hardly noticed.
At this point in time she was filled with mixed emotions about Cliff. She resented the hell out of him for what he was about to do to her when they got back. On the other hand, she still had feelings for him. It was hard not to, because when he was nice, he was very, very nice. And there was no denying that they’d shared many wonderful times together.
Marriage would solve everything.
Fat chance. Cliff was the most vocal anti-marriage advocate on two legs.
Random thoughts. I hate him. I love him.
What was a girl to do?
Renee offered her coffee. Idly she watched the Australian girl fill her cup. That could be me, she thought. In fact, it was me. Waitressing. Only not on a luxury yacht with a bunch of famous billionaires. More like Vegas with a bunch of randy gamblers.
Lori glanced up from her place at the breakfast-table to see the Brit footballer, Taye. And what a hunky sight he was. Striped board shorts concealing a multitude of goodies, a sleeveless tee, glistening black skin, and arms with muscles that defied description.
Wow! Lori thought. Sex on a stick. What a pleasant way to start the day.
‘Any sign of my wife?’ Taye enquired, helping himself to a plate of fruit from a long table where all kind of breakfast choices were laid out.
‘Haven’t seen her,’ Lori said, still admiring his impressive physique while thinking that the magazine ads didn’t do him justice. ‘I think I’m the first up.’
‘No,’ Taye boasted, sitting down next to her. ‘I’m the first up. Already worked out in the gym for half an hour, and had a dip in the pool. Forty lengths. Not bad.’
‘Not bad at all,’ Lori murmured, as Mercedes poured him a glass of juice.
‘You been in the gym here?’ Taye asked politely, thinking that she looked like the athletic type.
‘Try it. It’s real hi-tech. Lots of fine equipment.’
‘It is — gets you all souped-up for the day.’
‘I’ll give it a shot tomorrow. Maybe I can persuade Cliff to join me.’
‘You won’t regret it,’ Taye said, stretching his arms above his head, thinking that last night had been solid. Ashley had been as randy as he was, and they’d had a shitload of fun in bed, more than they’d had in a long time.
‘Cliff is kind of lazy,’ Lori offered. ‘Although he does like to keep it all moving.’
‘Don’t we all,’ Taye replied.
‘I’ll second that.’
‘So, Lori,’ Taye said politely. ‘What do you do? You a model or somethin’?’
‘Yeah? Have I seen you in anythin’?’
‘Well, if you had, I hope you would’ve remembered,’ she answered, artfully dodging the question.
‘We don’t get out to the movies much,’ Taye admitted, ‘what with work, practice, appearances, commercials, an’ our six-year-old twins. They take up a ton of time an’ energy.’
‘Twins!’ Lori exclaimed. ‘That must be amazing.’
‘If you fancy goin’ without sleep for a couple of years,’ he said ruefully. ‘Yeah, then it’s amazin’.’
‘I’m sure it’s worth it.’
‘Of course it is,’ he said with a wide grin. ‘Although I have to tell you, they’re two right little ravers. It’s never dull around our house. Keeps me an’ the missus in top shape.’
‘I can see that,’ Lori murmured, once again admiring his spectacular physique.
‘Well… you look… uh… fantastic.’
‘Thanks. I do my best,’ he said, trying to ignore the fact that she seemed to be coming onto him. Ashley did not appreciate any woman flirting with him, so he was more than relieved when Luca put in an appearance.
Luca was enjoying himself. He’d been working hard all year on two new albums and a worldwide tour, and this short break was a welcome one before continuing his South American tour. He was impressed with the group Aleksandr had gathered. In fact, he was honoured to be included.
Jeromy did not seem to be as impressed as he was, but then Jeromy was riding high on a major bitch-fest. He hadn’t liked either of his dining companions the previous evening, whereas Luca had experienced a fine old time.
Lately, Jeromy was starting to get on his nerves. At the beginning of their relationship things had been quite different. Luca had looked up to Jeromy as being someone who could teach him things, improve his mind, and protect him from the gay mafia who were jonesin’ to get a shot at him. With Jeromy — a respectable, cultured, older English man as his partner, he’d believed it put him out of reach. Not exactly on a pedestal, but hardly a boy to be trifled with.
So after bravely emerging from the closet, he’d fallen straight into a relationship with Jeromy. At the time he’d thought it was the safest move to make, only lately he was experiencing doubts. Jeromy was not the man Luca had thought he was. He was way too promiscuous, and that side of him somewhat unnerved Luca, what with all the diseases out there. Jeromy was also a rabid social climber, and a caustic and sometimes cruel critic of people when they didn’t live up to his impossible standards.
Luca, who was extremely easygoing, had finally come to realize that Jeromy Milton-Gold was a big snob — especially when it came to Suga. Luca adored his ex-wife and would do anything for her. After all, it was Suga he had to thank for giving him the chance to have such a fantastic career. She’d discovered him, nurtured him, loved him, made sure she’d surrounded him with the best managers and producers in the business. And even after giving birth to his son, she’d let him go with never a cross word, no bitterness or ill-will. Suga was a truly wonderful and selfless woman who genuinely cared about him.
Only Jeromy didn’t see it. Jeromy seemed to take great pleasure in putting her down. Why is she so grossly fat? Her career is definitely over. She’s the worst dresser I’ve ever seen. What’s with that god-awful hair? Can she even sing any more?
Jeromy’s snide comments were endless, even though he knew Luca didn’t appreciate hearing the disturbing and bitchy things he had to say about Suga.
As for Luca junior, whenever the young boy was around, Jeromy more or less ignored him. This hurt Luca a lot for he adored his son, and he would have liked his partner to feel the same way.
‘Hey,’ Taye said, greeting the singer.
‘Hey back atcha, an’ good morning everyone,’ Luca responded. ‘I guess we’re the early group.’
‘That we are,’ Lori said cheerfully. ‘Cliff was still asleep when I got up.’
‘Ashley too,’ Taye said, joining in. ‘That woman can sleep the day away.’
Mercedes sprang into action, offering Luca coffee, tea or juice.
He chose juice. ‘Well, isn’t this a beautiful day!’ he exclaimed to his table companions. ‘How lucky are we?’
‘I know,’ Lori agreed. ‘If paradise existed, this would be it.’
‘Very poetic,’ Luca said, grinning. ‘I think I feel a song coming on.’
‘Really?’ Lori said.
‘Just kidding,’ Luca said, recalling Jeromy’s rant about Lori when they’d returned to their cabin the previous night. Jeromy — ‘Why the hell was I the one stuck next to that redheaded idiot? She’s a nobody. Why should I even bother wasting my time? It was insulting.
Luca actually liked Lori. He found her to be refreshing and pretty with her amazing red hair and great body. So what if she wasn’t important or famous? Who cared?
Jeromy did, and that pissed Luca off.
* * *
True to his promise the night before, Aleksandr had satisfied Bianca until she’d begged him to stop. Aleksandr could do more with his tongue than most men could do with a seven-inch erection.
Bianca luxuriated in bed when she finally awoke. How incredible it was to be away from it all. No phones. (Aleksandr had insisted everyone gave up their cell phones when they’d boarded the yacht.) No hovering paparazzi. No fashion fittings. Photo shoots. Branding meetings. Personal appearances. Just pure sheer nothing to do except nothing. She was in heaven.
Aleksandr was sitting out on their private terrace eating breakfast. Bianca slid her naked body from between the sheets and strolled out to join him.
His eyes took in every feline inch of her. ‘Exquisite,’ he observed.
‘And it’s all yours,’ she said, tossing back her blacker-than-night hair.
‘To do with as I will.’
‘Ah, but you already have,’ Bianca said, licking her full lips.
‘You make me want more,’ Aleksandr said, his voice a husky growl as he reached for her.
‘Shouldn’t we be joining our guests?’ she ventured, taking a step back.
‘They can wait. Come sit with me.’
She moved closer and sat on his knee. He cupped her breasts with his large hands, caressing her nipples until she began sighing with pleasure.
‘Shall I make you come?’ he said. ‘Would you like that?’
‘Only if you let me return the favour.’
Aleksandr roared with laughter and stood up, tipping her off his knee.
‘Later,’ he said. ‘You’re right, we should be joining our guests.’
‘You are such a tit-tease,’ she said, feigning indignation. ‘You’re leaving me all revved up with nowhere to go.’
‘Take a shower and put on your bikini,’ Aleksandr commanded. ‘Today we go exploring.’
* * *
On her way up to the top deck for breakfast, Ashley ran into Cliff. She had on a pink jumpsuit with plenty of cleavage, her long blond hair tied back in a jaunty ponytail.
‘Oh my God, talking to you last night was such fun,’ she said, pouncing. ‘You’re so down to earth and lovely.’
‘What did you expect?’ Cliff asked, raising a caustic eyebrow.
‘Well, um, I thought, with you being such a big star, that you might be all up yourself.’
‘I try not to be,’ Cliff said, faintly amused. ‘Lori keeps me grounded.’
‘Lori?’ Ashley questioned.
‘Oh yes,’ Ashley said. ‘I forgot that you’re with someone. I mean, in the magazines you’re always referred to as being single, so…’ she trailed off. She’d chosen to ignore the fact that he was with a girl, although this one was probably only temporary like all the rest she’d read about.
‘You’d better not let Lori hear you say that,’ Cliff chided, as they approached the breakfast deck. ‘She’s very sensitive.’
‘Well, I can see that it must be difficult for her.’
‘She can handle it.’
As if on cue, Lori jumped up to greet him, planting a kiss on his mouth, while throwing the blonde with the big tits a ‘keep off’ look. Last night at dinner she’d observed Ashley drape herself all over Cliff. Poor Taye, he must have his hands full with his flirty wife. But not to worry, because Lori was going to make sure that Ashley didn’t get anywhere near Cliff, not on her watch.
Besides, Ashley had the gorgeous footballer husband. Surely he was enough to keep her busy?
* * *
By the time morning arrived, Flynn had a backache from hell. He’d elected to sleep on the couch, while Xuan had commandeered the comfortable double bed. ‘We’ll take turns,’ she’d crisply informed him. ‘Tomorrow night you may have the bed.’
He was grateful she’d agreed to go along with his plan that they presented themselves as a couple. ‘I wouldn’t ask if it didn’t mean a lot to me,’ he’d assured her.
‘It is interesting to see you so vulnerable for once,’ she’d observed. ‘This woman must have really hurt you.’
‘She did,’ he’d muttered.
So the couch it was. And since he was six three, and the couch was somewhat shorter, it had not been a comfortable night. Plus his head was spinning, thinking about Sierra.
He had imagined he was over her.
He had thought that if he ever saw her again, it would mean nothing.
Of course he was wrong.
Seeing her in person was not the same as seeing her photos in magazines — the politician’s stylish wife, so beautiful, so popular. He remembered the shock he’d felt when he’d read about her and Hammond getting married. The love of his life had married his arch nemesis, Hammond Patterson.
Really? How the hell had that happened?
Then he’d remembered the sickening photos someone had sent him of Sierra: in one of them she was in a compromising position with Hammond. Jesus Christ.
He’d burned the photos. Obliterated them.
Now here he was, stuck on a yacht in the middle of the Sea of Cortez. And what he had to do was come up with a clever excuse to get himself off the boat.
Xuan was in the shower. She emerged with wet hair and a towel tied around her petite body, sarong-style.
‘You hungry?’ he asked.
‘I could be.’
‘Get dressed and we’ll go for breakfast.’
‘You don’t have to wait for me.’
‘That’s okay,’ he said restlessly, willing to hang out until she was ready.
He was not prepared to risk a further one-on-one conversation with Sierra. And he certainly didn’t want to run into Hammond. They’d barely spoken. A brief ‘How are you?’ and that was it.
The thought of Hammond being in a position to attempt to make a run for the highest office in the land was the biggest joke of all time. How the hell had that happened?
‘Turn your back while I dress,’ Xuan instructed.
He did as she asked, and started working on an excuse to get off the yacht.
* * *
Hammond hit the breakfast deck, and immediately sat himself down next to Lori.
‘You look very fresh this morning, my dear,’ he said. ‘All ready for a day of sunning?’
‘I get too many freckles when I sunbathe,’ she explained.
‘Nothing wrong with a freckle or two,’ Hammond said with a jovial chuckle and a quick peek at her breasts, perky in a pristine white T-shirt with no bra. He could see her nipples.
Man, Lori thought. This is like the song ‘It’s Raining Men’. And they’re all wildly attractive. And I’m the only single woman on the boat apart from the Asian, and she’s no competition. Too serious. And short. I am about to have major fun. And a little light flirting for Cliff to observe might even change his mind about dumping me.
‘I guess us ladies can go topless when we lie out to sunbathe,’ Lori said, addressing the table, knowing full well that there was no way Ashley would like that.
‘I don’t think so,’ Ashley responded as expected.
‘Why not?’ Lori said, pushing it.
‘Isn’t that a decision best left to our hostess?’ Ashley said, her tone quite icy.
‘I think we should put it to the vote,’ Lori said boldly. ‘What do you think, Senator? Tops on or off?’
‘No objections from me,’ Hammond chuckled. ‘Off sounds like a fine plan.’
‘I’m always topless,’ Luca joked.
Before the conversation could continue, Aleksandr and Bianca appeared.
‘Today we are taking a magical mystery tour on an uninhabited island,’ Aleksandr announced. ‘For all those who wish to come — and I hope that will be everyone — we gather at twelve noon. Be prepared.’
Twenty-four hours in, and Mercedes already knew plenty. Observation was her strong suit. As a lowly stewardess, people were inclined to forget she was there. Conversations took place and she heard it all. The Senator was flirting with the redhead. The redhead was flirting with everyone. The Asian woman was an uptight bitch who considered herself smarter than all the other women aboard, and she was not sleeping with her boyfriend — who even Mercedes had to agree was quite a hunk — because one of the maids had informed her that he’d spent the night on the couch. Aleksandr and Bianca were fucking like rabbits — even getting one on in the middle of dinner. The footballer and his blonde wife were doing it too. But not the Senator and his wife — who was zonked out of her mind on an assortment of pills. Plus the Senator was a screamer, berating his wife in private, while fawning over her in public. The gay boys were an odd couple. Luca Perez was a sweetheart, and the older guy was a sly fox. And finally the movie star was just that — a dumb movie star.
So… in twenty-four hours Mercedes had learned plenty about the passengers, all of which she’d reported to Cruz.
She kept a different eye on the mostly Australian crew, and she foresaw no problems there. Her roommate and fellow stewardess, Renee, was all teeth with an eager-to-please personality. Den, the barman, was no problem. Guy was all mouth and no balls. Captain Dickson was a nonentity who’d fold as soon as Cruz and his men boarded.
Kyril presented her only problem. The burly Russian bodyguard was a hard nut to crack. She’d visited his command room on several occasions, ostensibly to take him trays of food which he always rejected.
Kyril sat in a chair in front of an array of security monitors and barely moved. He was certainly not up for any light conversation, and trying to flirt with him had gotten her exactly nowhere.
What the hell? He had a dick, didn’t he? And if she couldn’t get it hard, who could?
Kyril was an imperative part of the plan. He was the only person aboard who could potentially cause problems.
Cruz and his team planned to strike in a few days, so there was still time. She sensed that Kyril wasn’t going to be easy, and if she couldn’t divert him sexually… well… drugs were her other alternative.
Fortunately she’d come prepared. Horse tranquillizers. The only sure thing.
‘I will not be coming on the excursion,’ Sierra said, standing up to her husband for once.
‘You haven’t left our room all morning,’ Hammond pointed out, admiring himself in the bathroom mirror, making sure he’d combed his hair exactly the way it suited him when he appeared on TV ‘What must everyone think?’ he added churlishly.
‘Who cares what they think?’ Sierra replied, determined not to give in. ‘I have a bad migraine and I’m not moving. You’ll have to go without me.’
Hammond considered the possibilities. If Sierra came with, he’d be forced to be nice to her in front of everyone and stay by her side. If Sierra didn’t come, he’d be free to spend more time with the sexy redhead and the blonde with the big tits, not to mention Miss Super-model herself with the Fuck Me lips and insane body. Then there was always the Asian piece of pie. Yes, quite a tasty cornucopia of pussy.
Sierra not coming was really not so bad. After all, there was no press around, no photo opportunities, which meant who cared if she was with him or not? ‘Fine,’ he said, tight-lipped as he emerged from the bathroom. ‘Have it your way. However, I do expect you to be up and dressed when I return. Headache or not, I refuse to allow you to miss dinner.’
‘Very well,’ Sierra responded.
Five minutes later he was gone and she could breathe again. His vitriol about Flynn had spilled over her like a never-ending gush of rancid oil. She’d listened, stayed silent, until finally he’d run out of insults.
She’d lain awake most of the night, not having taken her usual sleeping pills, and in the morning she’d willed herself not to reach for the Xanax.
The truth was that she had no headache. She felt remarkably clear-headed for the first time in months.
Flynn Hudson. He was here on this yacht. And if not now, when would she ever have the chance to find out why he’d treated her the way he had? So callous. So cruel and nasty. So unlike the Flynn she’d known, the man to whom she’d given up her virginity, the man she’d once loved with every fibre of her being.
Suddenly everything seemed very clear. If an explanation was all she needed, then maybe she could reclaim her life and become the person she once was, not this pathetic shell of a woman who yearned for a love she could never have, a woman who lived in fear of a domineering and threatening husband.
Were Hammond’s threats even real?
Who knew? He’d led her to believe that they were. But surely even he couldn’t be such a monster?
Or could he?
It was something she might be forced to find out.
* * *
Lori was totally psyched. A visit to a mysterious deserted island, how rad was that?
Cliff, not so much. ‘If you don’t mind, I think I’ll sit this one out,’ he said. ‘I feel like finding a nice quiet corner and reading a script or two.’
‘Do you want me to stay with you?’ Lori asked, although she was dying to explore the island.
‘No, sweetie, you go,’ he said, throwing her a quizzical look. ‘Only you’d better watch out for the horny Senator.’
‘Excuse me?’ she said, startled.
‘That randy bastard has had his eye on you ever since we got here.’
‘Who?’ she asked, as if she didn’t know.
‘Aren’t you listening? The Senator, babe. Politicians got it goin’ on. Ever since Clinton they think they’re all movie stars. Only don’t forget that I’m the real deal. Okay?’
There were times when Cliff totally endeared himself to her, and this was one of them. He’d noticed! And he was — well, if not jealous… at least aware.
‘Oh,’ Lori said, suppressing a smile. ‘I can handle him. J.F.K. he’s not.’
Cliff laughed. Lori was such a good sport and fun to be with (not to mention the world-class blow-jobs), so much fun that he was seriously considering keeping her around for another year. Who needed the hassle of breaking in a new girlfriend when an esteemed Senator seemed to get off on the one he already had? Lori was hot stuff, and she never pushed him on marriage or any of that crap.
‘Go have a blast,’ he said, patting her on the ass. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
She turned around and planted a big fat kiss on his cheek. ‘I’ll miss you,’ she said, genuinely meaning it.
He gave her one of his famous grins. ‘Try not to miss me too much.’
‘Oh, and while we’re on the subject of flirting,’ she added, ‘do me a favour and steer clear of Miss Blonde Big Tits. Okay?’
‘She’s married!’ Cliff objected.
‘So’s the Senator.’
‘Get outta here,’ Cliff said, starting to laugh again. ‘The blonde’s all talk and no blow. Besides, I prefer me a hot-blooded redhead.’
‘Hmm,’ Lori said, putting on a mock stern voice. ‘Let’s make sure it stays that way.’
* * *
‘I have decided not to go,’ Jeromy said, pursing his thin lips.
‘Why not?’ Luca wanted to know.
‘Because I am perfectly happy staying on the yacht and relaxing, thank you very much. I have no desire to start traipsing around some stupid island. It doesn’t appeal to me.’
‘You’re missing out,’ Luca said mildly.
‘I think not.’
Luca shrugged and gave up. Jeromy was not the outdoors type. Mr Milton-Gold preferred indoor activities, with a martini clutched in his manicured hand and his body clad in an expensive designer outfit.
‘If that’s the way you want it, then I guess I’ll see you later,’ Luca said, anxious to get going and join the others.
‘You’re still leaving then?’ Jeromy said, surprised and irritated that Luca didn’t elect to stay with him.
‘You bet your ass,’ Luca replied enthusiastically. ‘Wouldn’t miss it.’
Jeromy scowled. He didn’t like the idea of Luca running off without him, although the thought of sweating his way through some hideous deserted island was enough to make him stick to his original decision. This was supposed to be a leisure trip, not some screwed-up version of the TV show Survivor.
‘Well,’ Jeromy said testily, making the most of an annoying situation, ‘try to enjoy yourself without me.’
‘Yeah,’ Luca said, looking forward to some time away from Jeromy. ‘I’ll do that.’
* * *
The Bianca had two luxurious tenders, each able to accommodate several crew-members and eight passengers.
The guests gathered, ready to disembark from the big yacht.
Guy, along with Renee and Den, was also on the trip, prepared to cater to the celebrity guests’ every need. Guy had wanted Mercedes to come too, but when several passengers had elected to stay on board The Bianca, reluctantly he’d left her to take care of them.
‘You’re in charge of seeing that these people have everything they need,’ he’d warned her. ‘I do not wish to hear one complaint.’
‘Got it covered, boss,’ Mercedes had said with a cheeky tilt of her chin.
‘Do not call me boss,’ Guy admonished, not sure if he liked this girl or not. There was something about her he couldn’t quite warm to. Maybe the Captain was right — she wasn’t the perfect fit. ‘Mr Guy will do nicely.’
‘Yes, Mr Guy,’ she said, teetering on the edge of sarcasm.
‘And don’t forget to see if the Captain would like you to bring him lunch,’ Guy said, frowning. He would not be hiring this one again. She was too fresh — and not in a physical way.
‘I’ve got it covered, bo— uh, Mr Guy.’
Both tenders were loaded with supplies. Several bottles of champagne, soft drinks, snacks, and an elaborate picnic lunch.
‘Where’s your boyfriend?’ Hammond asked as he followed Lori onto one of the tenders.
‘He’s decided to stay on board and read,’ Lori said. ‘How about your wife? Is she coming with?’
‘Headache,’ Hammond answered shortly, admiring Lori’s long tanned legs, no freckles in sight.
‘Poor thing,’ Lori said, her eyes following Taye as he made his way down the ladder onto the boat, followed by Ashley, clad in some kind of flimsy leopard-print cover-up — which actually revealed more than it covered.
Bianca, Aleksandr, Luca, Xuan and Flynn were already in the second tender.
As the two boats took off, Captain Dickson appeared at the side of the yacht, and waved them on their way. ‘Have a wonderful day,’ he shouted.
‘We plan to,’ Bianca shouted back.
And then they were off.
* * *
Cliff found a quiet corner on the top deck where he settled with a pile of scripts. A peaceful afternoon suited him just fine, as it wasn’t often he had the luxury of spending time by himself. His life consisted of making movies, followed by travelling the world promoting them. There was no way he could estimate how many interviews he’d given over the last two decades, nor how many photo sessions he’d posed for. Not that he was complaining, for the rewards were plentiful.
Still… a full afternoon where he didn’t have to play Cliff Baxter, charming movie star, was sheer bliss.
Mercedes brought him an iced tea and jotted down his request for a light salad lunch.
‘Will you be eating with the other guests?’ she asked.
‘I thought they’d all gone on the trip,’ Cliff replied.
‘No. The Senator’s wife is still aboard. So is Luca Perez’s companion.’
‘I’ll stay where I am,’ Cliff decided, in no mood to be social.
‘Yes, Mr Baxter,’ Mercedes said, acting as the perfect little stewardess in her neat uniform, a practised smile on her face.
One down, two to go. The Senator’s wife was still in her cabin, and Mercedes wasn’t quite sure where Luca Perez’s significant other was.
The truth was, she didn’t much care for the gays. She considered being gay a waste of manpower, although she’d had an experience or two with girls. However, girl-on-girl action was different. Besides, Luca Perez was crazy hot, so what was he doing with some old douche who seemed to be about as much fun as a box of tampons?
With most of the guests gone, she planned on doing a quick sweep of their rooms to check out the jewelry and money stash. She’d already ascertained that the limey blonde was into diamonds, and that the footballer had several expensive watches. Nice. But the real prize would be in the main stateroom where she’d already discovered a hidden safe.
No problem there, for amongst her many other talents, Mercedes knew how to crack a safe with the best of ’em.
As soon as the maids were safely out of the way, she slipped into the master suite and headed straight for the safe with her handy box of tools. Fifteen heart-stopping minutes later she was in.
What a bonanza! A stack of cash. Papers — boring. And a small black jewel box containing the most exquisite ring she’d ever seen. A magnificent emerald surrounded by dozens of sparkling diamonds.
Mercedes almost salivated.
Oh yes, when the time came, she planned on cleaning up.
Why shouldn’t she grab what she wanted? Cruz could do his thing, and she’d do hers. It was about time she seized the opportunity to make a killing and strike out by herself.
Yes, she had an agenda. No more Daddy’s little helper.
Mercedes had her own plans.
The deserted island was a magical place. A glorious oasis in the middle of the sea. Pristine white sands, crystal-clear blue water, pockets of unusual rock formations, lush greenery and groves of palm trees heading inland.
The Captain had arranged to have a tour guide meet them on the island, and the Mexican man was already waiting when they arrived.
‘Wow!’ Bianca exclaimed, jumping off the tender and running straight onto the sand, throwing off her T-shirt to reveal a barely-there orange bikini. ‘This is fanfuckin’tastic! And no hidden paparazzi. I’m in heaven!’
Aleksandr smiled. There was nothing he enjoyed more than watching Bianca indulge her childlike tendencies. He found it refreshing.
‘C’mon, Ashley,’ Bianca called out. ‘Join me.’
Ashley, who was gingerly stepping off the tender, trying not to get her Dolce sandals wet, nodded.
‘This is like a friggin’ dream,’ Taye said to Luca. ‘Jesus, mate, it’s a bloody long way from the old Elephant.’
‘You had an elephant?’ Luca questioned, trying to keep his eyes away from Taye’s fully stocked crotch.
‘No way, man,’ Taye said, breaking up laughing. ‘The Elephant an’ Castle is the part of London where I was born.’
Luca was even more confused, but he shrugged it off as he helped Lori from the tender.
After checking out the view, Lori wished she’d brought her camera as this was without a doubt the most stunning place she’d ever seen. Cliff should’ve come, he would’ve loved it.
Den, Renee, and several of the crew members were busy unloading the tenders, setting up umbrellas and giant beach towels and erecting a food and drink station, while Guy supervised.
Manuel, the Mexican tour guide, watched in stoic bewilderment. Tourists. They never failed to dumbfound him with their endless extravagances. It was staggering, the money they must have to throw away on non-essential things. When he’d been hired for this job, he’d been informed that these were very important people. They didn’t look that important to him. The women were half-naked, something that didn’t seem to bother the men. He would be shamed if his wife or daughters ever exposed themselves in such a blatant fashion.
Guy approached him. ‘The guests will be eating lunch first,’ he instructed Manuel. ‘Then we’ll start the island tour. Okay, mate?’
Manuel nodded, and walked a distance away, prepared to wait. For he knew from experience that he was merely there to serve.
* * *
When Flynn realized that Sierra was not on the excursion he was torn. Should he have stayed on the yacht?
For what? So she could practically ignore him again? Treat him like a total stranger?
He had a gnawing in his stomach that was bothering the hell out of him. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest move in the world, but with Hammond on the island, surely this was the perfect opportunity to clear things up with Sierra once and for all?
He needed closure. Now that he’d seen her again he knew in his heart that he had to find out why she’d betrayed him in such a cruel fashion.
Goddamm it! Now he was trapped on the island when he should’ve stayed on the yacht. And how was he supposed to get back? Swim? No. The yacht was too far away, at least a ten-minute trip, and that was by tender.
What to do?
Perhaps feign some kind of stomach ailment? Act like a weakling and claim to be sick? Not the most manly of actions, but it appeared to be the only excuse he could come up with.
He glanced around at the activity. The girls were frolicking on the sand as if they were just out of grade school, all except Xuan, who’d sat herself down next to Aleksandr on one of the folding chairs, and was busy engaging him in conversation. Hammond was leering at the girls — typical — while Taye and Luca had plunged into the ocean.
Flynn approached Guy. ‘I don’t want to make a big deal out of this,’ he said quietly, ‘only I’ve got a bad case of the runs, so I’m going to have to get back to the yacht.’
‘Don’t fancy the bushes, eh?’ Guy joked. Then realizing he might have overstepped his mark, he hurriedly backtracked. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said with a sombre shake of his head. ‘Not so funny, huh?’
‘Any chance of a ride?’ Flynn enquired.
‘Sure thing. We need more stuff from the mothership. Hop aboard tender two, one of the boys’ll take you.’
‘Thanks,’ Flynn said, thinking that he’d travelled through war zones, witnessed atrocities, interviewed terrorists, and yet now, at the thought of facing Sierra, he was more nervous than he’d ever been.
* * *
Could it get any better than this? Lori didn’t think so. Here she was, a girl who’d had to struggle for most of her life, and now she was on a fabulous island in the middle of nowhere with one of the world’s most famous super-models, a mega-football hero, a Senator, who was definitely lusting after her, a super-star Latin singer, and a Russian billionaire.
It was all totally surreal. Nobody would believe it.
She could just imagine her mom’s face if she could see her now. Oh lordy, Sherrine Walsh would have a fit.
Lori often wondered why her mom had never attempted to make contact. Yes, they’d been estranged for years, but surely when Sherrine had spotted her splashed all over the magazines on the arm of Cliff Baxter, she’d been tempted to make amends? They’d parted on such bad terms. Sherrine had called her every vile word she could come up with. The word that had stung the most was ‘worthless’.
How worthless could she be? She was living with a big movie star. She was happy — for now. She had made something of her life.
Take that, Sherrine. Who’s the worthless one now?
* * *
‘I can’t believe that Cliff didn’t come today,’ Ashley complained to Bianca.
Bianca raised an eyebrow. Why was Ashley bothered about Cliff Baxter when she had Taye to take care of her? After all, Bianca knew what Taye had to offer in the bedroom department, and it was all good. She shrugged and rolled over on the beach towel she’d spread out. ‘Movie stars dance to their own tune,’ she offered, allowing the silky white sand to run through her fingers. ‘And besides, he’s no Ryan Gosling.’
‘He’s Cliff Baxter,’ Ashley retorted, shocked that Bianca would even dare to compare him to Ryan Gosling. ‘And he’s bloody gorgeous.’
‘Does Taye know you have the hots for him?’ Bianca asked, amused.
‘I so do not,’ Ashley said, suddenly blushing.
‘Oh yes you do,’ Bianca sing-songed. ‘But that’s okay — it’s not as if you’re about to fuck him.’
Why not? Ashley wanted to say. Just because I’m married doesn’t mean I’m dead.
‘That’s so rude,’ she managed. ‘He’s just… I dunno… special.’
‘Ask Lori how special he is,’ Bianca said, jumping to her feet and stretching her lithe body. ‘They’re all the same between the sheets. Given the chance, they’re all up for a quick cheat, however faithful they claim to be.’
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘Well…’ Bianca mused. ‘I like to think that Aleksandr is different.’
‘So is Taye,’ Ashley said quickly.
Bianca shot her a disbelieving look. ‘How long have you been married?’
‘Er… almost seven years.’
‘And you’re telling me that Taye has never slipped it to another woman?’
Ashley immediately flashed onto Taye’s glaring indiscretion. The page three bimbo with the gigantic tits. The story splashed all over the English tabloids. Did Bianca know? Had she read about it?
It was one time. One time only.
She still resented the crap out of him for doing it. How dare he.
HOW DARE HE!
She glanced along the beach watching her husband interacting in the surf with Cliff’s redheaded slag.
Enough of that, thank-you-very-much.
‘Think I’ll take a dip before lunch,’ she said, ignoring Bianca’s question. ‘Coming?’
* * *
Hammond was making a concentrated effort not to stare, but the scenery was too damn tempting. He wasn’t admiring the palm trees and the pure white sand, no, his full attention was directed straight at Lori, Bianca and Ashley. Three magnificent women. Bianca, sleek and dark-skinned with a feline grace. Ashley, the definitive blonde babe with big boobs and a jiggly ass. And Lori, his particular favourite — young, athletic, with that mass of flaming red hair. She was wearing a white bikini, and when she emerged from the sea it appeared to be see-through. Her pert nipples were definitely on parade.
He found himself wondering if the pussy matched, and then he felt himself starting to get an erection, which wasn’t the brightest of ideas considering he was sitting in a folding chair next to Aleksandr, and his linen shorts were not the best at concealing a burgeoning hard-on.
‘The girls look good, huh?’ Aleksandr said in his gruff voice.
Hammond wondered if Aleksandr had noticed his excitement. If he was on the yacht he could’ve gone to his cabin and masturbated, but no such luck, he was on an island, and any kind of release would have to wait.
‘Very pretty,’ he agreed. ‘Especially your lady.’
‘She’s a good girl,’ Aleksandr said, nodding his head like a benevolent father. ‘Never believe the things you might read or see on the Internet.’
Cryptic, Hammond thought. Everyone knew Bianca had slept with the world.
‘Aleksandr,’ Hammond said, clearing his throat. ‘I was hoping we might get a moment to talk about my future plans. I have many things to discuss that could be most advantageous for both of us.’
‘I am sure,’ Aleksandr replied. ‘However, Senator, there is a time and a place for everything, and that time and place is not now.’
‘Of course,’ Hammond said, furious at being dismissed. Russian peasant! Rich prick! ‘Perhaps when we get back to the US we should pick a time and a place,’ he added smoothly. ‘I’ll make sure to slot you into my schedule anytime you find convenient.’
Aleksandr nodded. ‘We’ll see,’ he said in a non-committal way.
Hammond felt his erection deflate. Even Lori couldn’t coax it up now.
Back in New York, Eddie March was dealing with a crisis. A crisis that could blow up in everyone’s face. He’d arrived at the office bright and early, just as he did every day, and there, sitting in reception, were Mr and Mrs Martin Byrne, parents of young Skylar, Hammond’s latest intern.
‘They’ve been waiting half an hour,’ the girl at reception had informed him. ‘They wanted to see Senator Patterson. I told them he’s abroad, and besides, they didn’t have an appointment. However, since they said it was extremely urgent, I suggested they wait for you.’
Wait they did. And Eddie met with them, and suddenly it was all systems on red alert, for according to Martin Byrne, Senator Patterson had sexually molested his darling daughter, Skylar.
Eddie was in shock. Christ! How could this be happening? Was it true? Would Hammond be stupid enough to do such a thing?
Eddie wasn’t sure how to handle such a situation. Sex scandals involving politicians were hardly unusual. He immediately thought of John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Gary Hart, even ex-President Bill Clinton.
The scandal had ruined Edwards’s political ambitions. Hart and Spitzer were long gone. Clinton had survived being impeached, but only just. And there were numerous others who’d fallen by the wayside because of their various sexual shenanigans.
Dammit! Eddie’s initial reaction was, how could Hammond do this to Sierra? She was a beloved public figure. She was a rare and special beauty. Why would Hammond even consider straying? And with a teenage intern, at that.
Eddie thrust his mind into overdrive. What did these people want? Was it money? Headlines? An apology?
How could he help them and keep this under wraps?
There was only one way to find out.
On his return trip to the yacht, Flynn rehearsed exactly what he was going to say to Sierra when they finally came face-to-face.
Hey, remember me — the love of your life? Isn’t that what you assured me I was?
How could you do what you did to me? Were you even aware that you smashed my heart into a thousand splintered fragments and I never got over you?
What the fuck are you doing with an asshole like Hammond Patterson? You’re too smart to be with a man like him.
Hell, he didn’t know what he’d say, if anything.
He’d left the island without telling anyone except Guy. No one would miss him — they were all too busy, including Xuan, who seemed to have taken a real liking to Aleksandr. Too bad the Russian was under Bianca’s spell, for Aleksandr and Xuan would’ve made an interesting couple.
The tender zoomed towards the yacht while he desperately tried to clear his head. Thoughts were flying.
Was he making a big mistake?
Should he be doing this?
Why dredge up the past?
Hell, why not?
* * *
After enjoying a peaceful hour of solitude, Jeromy turned up, putting paid to Cliff’s precious time alone.
‘Ah,’ Jeromy sighed, flopping down on a nearby lounger. ‘And I thought I was the only smart one. Now I can see that great minds think alike.’
Cliché alert, Cliff thought. And who exactly is this?
‘Yeah,’ Cliff said amiably, lowering the script he was leafing through. ‘Just getting some reading done while I can.’
‘All work and no play,’ Jeromy admonished, wagging a bony forefinger.
Cliff frowned. Another cliché. What a jerk.
‘It seems that everyone else has deserted us,’ Jeromy said, delighted to spend alone time with the movie star. Maybe Cliff Baxter could be a future client — what a coup that would be.
‘True,’ Cliff said. ‘Only reading scripts isn’t really work, especially if they’re worthwhile.’
‘I must say,’ Jeromy continued, warming up, ‘I am an ardent admirer of your work. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you are extremely popular in the old home country.’
‘Home country?’ Cliff questioned, thinking that maybe he should’ve gone on the island trip after all.
‘England,’ Jeromy said grandly. ‘Actually, I’m from London. I must assume you have graced us with your presence.’
Yes, the man had just proved it, he was a walking talking cliché.
‘London’s a great city,’ Cliff said. ‘I’ve had many a good time there. In fact, I have a cousin who lives in Sloane Square. You know it?’
‘Know it!’ Jeromy exclaimed. ‘My showroom is just around the corner.’
‘I hate to sound immodest,’ Jeromy said, sounding immodest. ‘However, I am regarded as one of the premier interior designers in London.’
‘Is that so?’
‘And you’re on this cruise because of Aleksandr or Bianca?’ Cliff asked, wondering how he could escape.
‘Well,’ Jeromy lied, ‘they’re both dear friends. And as I am sure you know, my significant other is Luca Perez. He and Bianca are almost like brother and sister.’
‘Got it,’ Cliff said. This was not the way he’d planned on spending the afternoon.
Fortunately Mercedes appeared, offering drinks and snacks.
Cliff took the opportunity to stand up and stretch. ‘Think I’ll take a break,’ he said, moving towards the circular staircase. ‘See you later.’
Jeromy frowned. Was it something he’d said? Had Cliff’s nobody girlfriend complained about him because he hadn’t paid her enough attention the previous evening?
Dammit! A wasted opportunity.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Mercedes asked politely.
Jeromy, in a fit of pique, ignored her. It was a big mistake.
* * *
Clarity. A sensation Sierra hadn’t felt in a long time. No more drugs. Even though they were legal, they still dulled her senses, made the world a different place.
She’d once been a strong woman, opinionated and positive. Hammond had turned her into a shell of the woman she once was. Unfortunately she’d allowed it to happen, punishing herself for the past.
Seeing Flynn had been like standing under an icy cold shower.
Wake up, little girl. Fight the fight. Get over yourself.
It was incredible to feel so free. Just like that, the shackles were loosened and she could breathe again.
After getting dressed, she headed to one of the upper decks. It was a glorious day, just the kind of day to emerge from the frightening fog that had enveloped her for too many years.
Come at me with your threats, Hammond. Finally I am able to stand up to you.
And I will. Oh yes, I certainly will.
* * *
Being treated like a non-existent piece of shit did not thrill Mercedes. Jeromy whatever his dumb name was, would pay for that. She’d already scoped out his stateroom and knew exactly what she would take when the time came. Watches, rings, gold chains, cash. Between him and the singer, there was plenty of loot. The Senator and his wife, not so much. But the footballer kept a stack of cash hidden in his sock drawer, which amused her. Oh sure, like no thief worth their business would ever think of checking out a sock drawer.
Who was he hiding it from anyway? His wife? Miss Big Tits?
Mercedes was glad the guests were off the boat, it gave her time to snoop around. She was especially pleased that Guy wasn’t present. He was such a fussy queen who always seemed to have his eye on her. Renee and Den were both okay — easily manipulated and a bit stupid, but if the circumstances were different, maybe they could’ve all been friends.
Australians. A different kind of species.
* * *
Flynn was sweating, unusual for him, but he was way out of his comfort zone.
What was he going to say to Sierra?
Small talk wouldn’t cut it.
Shit! This was an impossible situation.
He decided to throw himself in the shower, get himself together, and approach Sierra in a cool and collected fashion.
Yeah, that was the way to do it.
At the door to his stateroom he encountered one of the stewardesses emerging.
‘Everything okay?’ he asked. ‘I thought the maid was already in here.’
‘Checking out your wet bar,’ Mercedes replied, unphased at nearly being caught.
And your computer.
And your cash.
Is that all? Really?
‘This place is run like a hotel,’ Flynn commented.
‘Full service,’ Mercedes replied, thinking that under different circumstances she might go for this guy. He was tall and macho, a touch edgy — exactly the way she liked ’em. ‘Didn’t you go on the island trip?’
‘Wasn’t for you?’ she asked, curious as to why he was back so soon.
‘Do you know where the Senator’s wife might be?’ Flynn said abruptly, not about to be questioned.
‘I think I saw her go to the top deck,’ Mercedes replied, wondering what was up. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘No, thanks,’ he said, entering his stateroom, slamming the door and stripping off his clothes.
Sierra. She was all he could think about as he stood under the icy needles of the shower.
Sierra. It was definitely time they talked it out.
* * *
After her run-in with Flynn, Mercedes decided that now was the time to forge some kind of contact with Kyril. She’d already thoroughly checked out his cabin — nothing personal to discover except his spare weapon stash, which was formidable. Kyril was a man prepared; he’d even affixed a special lock on the door to his cabin — a lock Mercedes had had no problem picking. She was a talented girl. Safes, locks — she knew what she was doing.
After almost getting caught by the sexy journalist guy, she headed for the kitchen and had the chef prepare a special meal for Kyril, informing him that it was for Cliff Baxter so it had better be great. What man could resist a juicy steak with french fries on the side? The smell alone was too tempting.
Unfortunately, Kyril turned out to be just such a man. When Mercedes knocked on the door to his security room carrying a tray, he waved her away with a ferocious glare.
Mercedes was not a girl to be dismissed. She persevered with the knocking until eventually he reluctantly opened the door.
‘What?’ he demanded, his Russian accent thick and heavy.
‘Food,’ Mercedes replied cheerfully. ‘A big fat steak cooked specially for you. You need to eat, and I noticed you never do.’
‘No steak,’ Kyril said grumpily. ‘I no eat meat.’
‘Oh!’ Mercedes exclaimed. ‘I didn’t know that. Can I get you something else?’
Kyril stared at her, perhaps noticing her for the first time. She’d unbuttoned her uniform to give him a hint of cleavage. God, he was ugly — such a big stony face with gapped yellow teeth and empty eyes.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she argued, noting he had a supply of bottled water and a stack of chocolate bars sitting on a shelf.
‘No,’ he repeated. But she could see his empty eyes checking out her cleavage.
Yes. He would soon come around. They always did.
A tempting lunch was laid out on folding tables and served on the endless stretch of white sand. Giant shrimp and succulent lobster dripping in melted butter, sumptuous salads, an array of delicious cold cuts, and devilled eggs with a healthy dollop of caviar atop. All the while the champagne and sangria flowed as the sun blazed down. But not to worry, for canvas covers were erected to shield the privileged travellers from the burning sun.
Renee and Den worked full out making sure everything ran smoothly, while Guy supervised.
Bianca lolled at Aleksandr’s feet, running her hand casually up and down his leg, murmuring about how this trip couldn’t get any better.
Xuan sat with Ashley, Taye and Luca. Their conversation was lightweight, mostly about music and movies. Earlier Xuan had moved away from Aleksandr as soon as Bianca laid claim. It surprised her that a man as intelligent as Aleksandr would be with such a woman. However, Xuan was wise enough to realize that every man had his weaknesses, even Flynn, usually so strong and dedicated. Yet on this trip he’d lost it over some married woman, and that wasn’t at all like the Flynn she knew. She’d noticed his absence, and assumed he’d returned to the yacht. Xuan had learned at an early age never to let your feelings rule your head. It was something she never did.
Hammond suggested to Lori that since both their partners had elected not to come, they should stick together.
Why not? Lori thought. What have I got to lose? He obviously has the hots for me, and Cliff knows it. Maybe I’ll get Cliff so jealous that he’ll change his mind about dumping me.
The Senator’s conversation was full of double entendres.
Lori smiled politely, nodded attentively, and wondered what Cliff was up to and whether he was missing her.
Hammond informed her in a smarmy way that she was the sexiest woman on the trip and that the other women had better watch out because she was capable of stealing all their men.
Lori kept smiling and nodding as she adjusted her bikini top in a vain attempt to achieve more coverage, because she could swear Hammond possessed X-ray vision. Flirting was one thing, but after a while the man was starting to creep her out with his sexist comments. Cliff was right, politicians were just as horny as the next man, probably even more so.
After lunch, Manuel was summoned by Guy, who requested that everyone wore shoes and a cover-up to start the island tour. Renee and Den handed out T-shirts and baseball caps to each guest, with The Bianca emblazoned on them.
‘I feel like we’re taking off on a school trip,’ Ashley giggled, throwing a T-shirt over her bikini. ‘This is so much fun!’
‘I know,’ Bianca agreed, grabbing Aleksandr’s hand and squeezing it tight. ‘It’s an adventure. A big, beautiful adventure. And you, my darling,’ she added, gazing up at Aleksandr, ‘planned it all perfectly.’
* * *
And so they set off, the billionaire and his elite group of famous guests.
They were not exactly roughing it as they began exploring the scenic beauty of the idyllic island.
Manuel had conducted the tour before with groups of extremely rich tourists. He was very aware that the stark unblemished beauty of the uninhabited island was quite staggering. First they passed by white sand dunes that led on to groves of coconut and date palms. Beyond the trees they came upon a series of natural springs and glorious cascading waterfalls.
Bianca immediately decided that she wanted to stop and swim under the most impressive waterfall.
‘We cannot hold our group up,’ Aleksandr chided. ‘There is more to see.’
‘Then get rid of everyone,’ Bianca whispered in his ear. ’Cause I want to swim naked with you. Tell them we’ll catch up. Go on,’ she urged when he hesitated. ‘Do it!’
Aleksandr couldn’t say no. He snapped his fingers for Guy. ‘Have everyone move ahead,’ he instructed. ‘We will stay here.’
Manuel did not like the idea of splitting the group, so Guy suggested to Aleksandr that perhaps they should all stay together.
‘Why?’ Aleksandr scoffed. ‘It’s perfectly safe. I hardly need my bodyguard on a deserted island.’
Guy nodded, but Manuel still seemed uneasy. The island was supposedly uninhabited, but over the years there had been rumours — sightings of mountain lions which came wandering down from the surrounding jungle-like hills, foraging for any food the tourists might have left behind; a dead body that had mysteriously washed up on shore.
Yes, the island had its own secrets.
‘Maybe I should stay with you?’ Guy suggested, anxious to please his temporary boss.
‘Go,’ Aleksandr replied impatiently. ‘Stop bothering me. We will catch up when we’re ready.’
Guy jumped to it; he was hot and sweaty, and the last thing he wanted was to annoy the man responsible for the large tip he expected at the end of the trip.
Lori and Luca had already taken off. To Manuel’s consternation, the rest of the group were beginning to scatter. Manuel hated it when that happened. Didn’t they realize that he was the tour guide? They should be following him, listening to his every word as he described the wonders of the island.
But no, it was not to be. This group had their own ideas.
* * *
The lush waterfalls made the perfect backdrop for Bianca to do a slow sensuous strip for her Russian lover. Not that she had much to take off. Merely an over-size T-shirt and a tiny Brazilian string bikini.
Bianca knew how to milk it, and Aleksandr appreciated every single minute of her seductive play as she stripped down for him.
They were under the impression that everyone had gone off on the tour, only unbeknownst to them, Hammond had lingered behind, loitering under cover of several lush palm trees.
Watching the enticing Bianca as she put on a show for her lover, Hammond was mesmerized. Long slinky legs. Small breasts with large dark nipples. A tiny waist. And glistening coffee-coloured skin.
He felt himself harden as the super-model sauntered naked into the water.
And when Aleksandr stripped off and followed her in, Hammond was mortified to discover that his host was hung like a horse.
He immediately felt woefully inadequate. Wasn’t it enough that the man was a billionaire? Jesus Christ! Some men had it all.
For a moment he forgot about jerking off and concentrated on the way Aleksandr seized Bianca from behind and began pounding into her, moving her towards the cascading waterfall, both of them oblivious to anything except making love. Or fucking. Because yes, that’s what they were doing, fucking like a couple of wild animals.
Hammond couldn’t help himself, he came in his pants like a thirteen-year-old schoolboy.
‘Shit!’ he muttered under his breath, attempting to clean himself up.
What if anyone had seen him? He was a United States Senator, for Christ’s sake, not some Peeping Tom getting his rocks off in the bushes.
Humiliated and furious with himself, Hammond quickly set off to find the others.
Sierra decided that she should call her sister. They’d always been close, only not close enough for Sierra to share what was actually going on in her marriage. She wasn’t about to do so now, but since Clare had been excited when she’d mentioned the trip, she knew that her sister would enjoy hearing all about the famous guests and the luxurious yacht.
With a firm step she headed for the satellite communication centre, passing the security room where Kyril, Aleksandr’s fierce bodyguard sat, surrounded by security cameras. What a strange man, she thought. Quite frightening really.
Captain Dickson greeted her with a jovial, ‘Good morning, Mrs Patterson. And how are we on this very fine day?’
She gave the Captain a warm smile, it was such a relief not to be operating from a fog-filled daze. ‘I’d like to make a call,’ she said. ‘Is that okay?’
‘Certainly,’ Captain Dickson replied, thinking that the Senator’s wife appeared to be a lot more cheerful than when she’d first boarded. Sierra Patterson was a beauty, as were all the female passengers. It was nice to see her looking as if she might enjoy herself. ‘Allow me to escort you,’ he added, gallantly holding out his arm.
‘Thank you, Captain,’ she said, dazzling him with her smile.
* * *
After standing under the shower, still trying to get his thoughts together, Flynn set off to find Sierra. He was more determined than ever to clear things up. Maybe that way he could finally forget about her and move on. It was quite clear that she’d experienced no difficulty doing exactly that. She’d married Hammond Patterson, for crissakes. Surely that was enough to make him forget her?
Somewhat pissed off at himself, he took the circular staircase to the middle deck where he spotted Jeromy lounging on a chair. Immediately he did an about-turn, heading back downstairs. Not that he had anything against gays — Luca seemed like a great guy — but there was something about Jeromy he couldn’t stomach. You didn’t have to be a genius to notice that the man was a first-class ass-kisser — it was patently obvious, and if there was one type of person Flynn abhorred, it was ass kissers.
Unfortunately, Jeromy saw him and called out, ‘Flynn, is that you? I thought you went on the jolly old island expedition.’
Why was everyone bugging him about that? Who cared?
He threw Jeromy a half-hearted wave as he hurriedly dodged out of sight. Finding Sierra, that’s all he was interested in.
* * *
While Sierra was speaking to her sister, the Captain informed her that Eddie March was on the line requesting to speak with the Senator.
‘I’ll take it,’ she said, saying a quick goodbye to Clare — who’d been thrilled to hear from her. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked Eddie, aware that Hammond had informed him that he was not to be bothered unless it was urgent.
‘Nothing for you to be concerned about,’ Eddie said, trying not to sound too agitated. ‘I should talk to Hammond.’
‘He’s off the yacht on a day trip. Won’t be back until later.’ She paused for a moment. ‘What is it? Perhaps I can relay a message.’
Not this message, Eddie thought. Oh no, certainly not this message.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said quickly. ‘Have him call me as soon as he can.’
‘If it’s urgent…’
‘Not urgent,’ Eddie said, feeling mighty uncomfortable about having to lie to Sierra. ‘Just make sure he contacts me.’
‘I’ll do that, although it might not be today.’
‘Fine,’ Eddie said, although it wasn’t fine. How long could he stall the Byrnes before they took action? They were threatening all kind of moves, such as contacting a TV news station or the Washington Post. Eddie had somehow or other convinced them to do nothing until they heard the Senator’s side of the story.
Right now, he also couldn’t wait to hear what Hammond would have to say about the situation. How out of control and stupid could one man be?
Pretty damn stupid.
* * *
‘Hey,’ Flynn said, finally coming face to face with Sierra as she emerged from the communications room.
‘Flynn,’ she murmured. Suddenly it all came flooding back and she couldn’t help remembering all the fantastic times they’d shared in the past, the amazing love they’d once had for each other, their incredible lovemaking which had resulted in her becoming pregnant.
Oh God! A pregnancy Flynn had never found out about.
What would he say if he discovered the truth? She’d lost their baby, but it wasn’t her fault. She’d been in a car with Hammond, and there was the accident… Guilt overcame her.
‘Yeah,’ Flynn said with a rueful sigh. ‘Once again it really is me.’
‘I didn’t doubt it,’ she replied, thinking how much he would hate her if he unearthed the real truth.
‘You look lovely,’ he said, noting that she seemed a lot better than the previous night.
‘Thank you,’ she said, making a determined effort to pull herself together and not fall to pieces.
‘I was thinking that maybe we should talk,’ he said, clearing his throat, nervous for the first time in God knew how many years — which was odd, because he didn’t get nervous, it simply wasn’t on his agenda.
‘I think we should,’ she said, nodding her head, although she wasn’t sure if she wanted to talk to him. It wasn’t as if it would solve anything.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘since this seems like the perfect opportunity, why don’t we go up to the top deck. I don’t think there’s anyone around up there.’
She nodded again, feeling breathless and yet strangely excited at the same time.
Closure. It was exactly what she’d been waiting for all these years, and now that it was about to happen she wondered if she was capable of handling the situation. Thank God Hammond wasn’t present to get in her way. It was just herself and Flynn, exactly how it should be. So yes, she could handle it.
They headed upstairs and settled on comfortable chairs in the all-glass atrium. For a few minutes they made stilted conversation until he finally said, ‘So, Sierra, all these years later, here we are.’
‘Yes, here we are,’ she agreed, glancing out at the endless blue sea. ‘What a place to meet up — it’s so unbelievably breathtaking.’
‘Better than some of the places I’ve experienced,’ he said dryly.
‘I know about the places you’ve been,’ she blurted out. ‘I’ve followed your career on your website, read your newsletters.’
‘You did?’ he said, surprised and more than a little pleased.
‘Yes, Flynn,’ she sighed, thinking that getting older suited him. He was more handsome than ever with his intense blue eyes and strong jawline.
‘I’m flattered,’ he said.
‘In spite of what happened,’ she said softly, ‘I always had this crazy urge to keep you in my life.’
They exchanged a long intimate look.
‘Hey — I kept tabs on you too,’ he said at last, finally breaking the look. ‘But I was shocked when I read you’d married Hammond.’ He took a long steady beat. ‘I guess it must’ve started between you and him when I left for London, then I got the photos.’ He stared at her intently. ‘Tell me, Sierra, was that the only way you could think of breaking up with me? ’Cause it was pretty damn shitty.’
‘Excuse me?’ she said, frowning. What on earth was he talking about? It was he who’d broken up with her.
‘The photos,’ he said insistently. ‘Why’d you do it?’
‘Funny, that’s exactly what I was about to ask you,’ she said, her eyes burning bright. This was a crazy conversation and she didn’t like it.
‘Ask me what?’ he said, puzzled.
‘Look — I understand we were both kids back then,’ she said, desperately trying to stay in control of her emotions. ‘Only sending me those photos was such a cruel thing to do. I couldn’t believe you would do something like that.’
‘What are you talking about?’ he said, his temper rising. ‘You were the one who sent me photos.’
‘Oh come on, Flynn,’ she sighed. ‘I didn’t send you anything.’
‘Hey — somebody sent them. And while we’re on the subject,’ he said heatedly, ‘it might interest you to know that you broke my fucking heart.’
‘No, Flynn,’ she said, torn between tears, guilt and anger. ‘You broke mine.’
‘Oh yeah? Photos of you making out with other guys, including Ham—’
‘Are you serious? I never made out with anyone, especially not Hammond. He was there for me when I needed him, it was purely platonic, and let’s not forget that it was you who asked him to watch out for me.’
‘Yeah? Then how do you explain the photos?’ he said roughly. ‘What’s your story?’
‘How do you?’ she said indignantly. ‘You were the one with girls draped all over you.’
‘What girls?’ he said, perplexed.
‘The ones in the photos.’
‘Now hold on,’ he said, perceiving that they were definitely talking at cross-purposes. ‘Are you telling me that you got photos too?’
‘What do you mean, too?’
‘I mean that someone sent me photos of you with other men.’
‘And someone sent me photos of you with a whole bunch of naked girls.’
‘What? There were never any other girls after I met you — I swear it. And there sure as hell were never any photos.’
‘Then… what?’ she questioned, confused and upset, wishing she was somewhere else.
‘Fuck!’ he said, realization dawning. ‘Whoever sent the photos must’ve been out to break us up.’
‘Why would anyone want to do that?’
‘Jesus!’ he exclaimed, smacking his forehead. ‘And here’s the kicker — like a couple of morons we both fell for it. How stupid is that?’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said, her eyes widening.
‘No, but I’m beginning to,’ he said grimly, getting up and pacing around. ‘Don’t you get it? We were set up.’
‘How is that possible?’
‘Who knows? But whatever it takes, I’m going to figure it out. What did you do with the photos you were sent?’
‘I destroyed them.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I did — and you know something else? Whoever sent them knew that’s what we’d do.’
‘I know, ’cause here’s the deal: they must’ve been fakes.’
‘You were in the photos, Flynn. I saw them.’
‘So were you, sweetheart. With several guys. Want to address that?’
‘And in one of them you were with Ham…’
As soon as he said Hammond’s name, it suddenly all became clear. Ham had always been jealous of his relationship with Sierra; he’d often claimed that since he’d seen Sierra first, she should’ve been with him. When that logic didn’t get him anywhere, he’d taken to speaking badly about her at any opportunity, calling her all kind of sick names. It was college guys’ shit, but Flynn had made sure it had never gotten back to her.
Then when he’d left for London, Hammond had obviously moved right in and seized his opportunity, lying to her that Flynn had asked him to watch out for her. What a lowdown sneaky son of a bitch.
‘You’re not going to like this,’ Flynn said, trying to keep his anger under control, ‘but I think I’ve figured out exactly what happened.’
‘You have?’ she said tentatively. ‘Please share.’
‘You and I were taken for one big ride. And you know who was manipulating it all?’
‘Your future husband.’
Sierra felt her heart accelerate. Hammond was responsible? Could this possibly be true?
She could only come up with one answer.
Yes. For Hammond had proved that he was capable of anything.
‘It’s time to move,’ Cruz announced over breakfast in Acapulco.
‘Move where?’ asked Ina, channelling her best Salma Hayek in a form-fitting turquoise dress, her overly large breasts spilling out, nipples permanently erect — the result of her breast enlargement surgery.
‘Nothin’ to do with you,’ Sergei said, slurping strong black coffee from a ceramic mug. ‘Me and your brother got business to conduct. You stay out of it.’
Ina frowned. If it wasn’t for her, Sergei would never have met Cruz. She knew for a fact that they’d done many a deal together, so shouldn’t she be getting commission? Or at the very least shouldn’t Sergei be dumping the American puta he kept stashed in his Mexico City apartment and start thinking of marrying her? It wasn’t right. She felt insulted.
Now her brother and Sergei were planning something big, and they didn’t care to tell her what it was, which infuriated her.
Fortunately she’d learned the art of spying from her brother, and she knew their plan had something to do with a yacht they were about to hi-jack and hold for ransom. A yacht that was cruising the Sea of Cortez. A little off Cruz’s regular beat, but she supposed he knew what he was doing. Her brother had cojones the size of Cuba.
Ina had always had a bit of a crush on Cruz, although he’d never paid her much attention. Her brother was more exciting than Sergei, who had a vicious temper and wasn’t that adventurous in bed. Sergei had never gone down on her, and several of Cruz’s conquests had confided in the past that her brother was a master in that department.
Truth was that if Cruz wasn’t her brother, she would’ve definitely had the hots for him. Too bad they were related.
Forbidden love. Why was it forbidden when it seemed so right?
‘We leave tonight,’ Cruz said.
‘About time,’ Sergei said.
‘Where we goin’?’ Ina enquired.
Both men ignored her.
* * *
Sergei had arranged to rent a villa on a very large private estate outside Cabo: a sprawling villa off the beaten track, with beach access and no neighbours. Cruz’s team of misfits had already taken up residence, busily preparing for their strike against The Bianca, making sure they had everything they needed. Two powerful speedboats, supplies, rifles, guns.
Cruz had trained them well. His men were Somalians who spoke no English, but they sure as hell understood exactly what he wanted. Over the last few years he’d made them richer than they could ever have imagined. He was their boss, and they did whatever they were instructed to do.
Sergei was unknown to them. However, if Cruz indicated he was the man, as long as there was money to be made, they were prepared to work for him too.
Sergei brought several of his personal bodyguards to the villa. Stoic men of Russian descent, they did not mix with the Somalians, considering themselves far superior.
The plan had not included bringing Ina with them too, although, since she apparently knew more than she should, Sergei had finally agreed that it would be better if she came.
Cruz had not objected. What did he care? His sister could make herself useful; she could keep Sergei busy in the bedroom and out of his way.
When taking over a boat, everyone had to know what they were doing. Gaining control was a fast and furious thing — there could be no mistakes. The day they hit The Bianca, Cruz did not relish the thought of taking Sergei along on the ride. Sergei wasn’t a professional hijacker, which meant he could well turn out to be a liability. Unfortunately, Sergei had insisted he be present. ‘I want to watch Aleksandr Kasianenko’s fuckin’ face when we take over his yacht,’ he’d growled. ‘That bastard is responsible for my brother’s death, and now I will see that he pays.’
The details of exactly how Aleksandr would pay were still milling around in Sergei’s head.
It would be long and painful. Of that he was sure.
Lori was basking in her time with Luca, because even though he was a huge star and world-famous, he was so down to earth and so much fun. She couldn’t help wondering what he was doing with the crusty uptight Englishman who had practically ignored her all through last night’s dinner. What could Luca possibly see in Jeromy Milton-Gold? Jeromy was not even attractive, with his long thin nose and small squinty eyes. And judging from the previous evening, he certainly wasn’t loaded with charm.
The island was such an idyllic paradise, Lori kept on wishing that Cliff had come with her. It was an experience not to be missed. On the other hand, Luca seemed quite happy that his significant other had failed to make the effort, and she could understand why.
‘Jeromy’s not like us,’ Luca confided. ‘He’s more into indoor activities, if you get what I mean.’
‘Sex?’ Lori questioned, tilting her head.
‘Not my kind of sex,’ Luca retorted, grimacing.
‘You’re gay,’ Lori said boldly. ‘Doesn’t that mean you’re up for anything?’
‘Not me,’ Luca said quickly. ‘I’m a one-on-one kinda guy.’
‘Yet the one you’ve chosen is Jeromy.’
‘Here’s the situation,’ Luca explained. ‘I fell straight out of the closet into his arms. He kind of took me over.’ A meaningful pause. ‘Lately I’ve been thinking it might be time to break away.’
‘Why?’ she asked curiously. ‘Have you met someone else?’
‘No, but Jeromy’s life-style’s not for me.’
‘And you’ve only just realized this?’
‘Y’know, Lori,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘sometimes things take a while to figure out.’
She nodded, feeling immensely flattered that Luca felt free to reveal his true feelings to her. They barely knew each other, and it wasn’t like she was famous or anything. Obviously he liked her, and that made her feel as if she belonged. This trip was turning out to be better than she’d expected.
‘I guess being away from everything is the perfect time to think things through,’ she offered.
Luca ran his hand through his mop of thick blond hair. ‘Right,’ he agreed. ‘An’ that’s exactly what I’m doing.’
‘Then I hope for your sake that you reach the right conclusion.’
‘Oh, I will,’ he said, nodding to himself. ‘And you, Lori,’ he added, ‘what’s up with you and Cliff Baxter?’
‘Uh… well,’ she answered hesitantly. ‘We’ve been together a year.’
‘Where’s it going? Or should I ask — where do you want it to go?’
‘I don’t know, I’m not sure,’ she mumbled. ‘It’s complicated.’
‘Marriage? Children?’ Luca persisted.
‘Cliff’s not the marrying kind,’ she said.
‘That doesn’t mean you can’t change his mind.’ Luca paused for a moment, ‘Is it something you want?’
Before she could answer, Hammond came lumbering up to them, his T-shirt drenched in sweat, his face pink from the heat, brown hair plastered to his forehead.
Lori was relieved to be off the hook; their conversation was getting a little too personal for her liking.
‘Goddamm it!’ Hammond complained, swatting at a flying bug. ‘I need to throw myself in the ocean. Isn’t it time we turned back?’
* * *
Jeromy was bored. He hadn’t come on this voyage to sit by himself in solitary splendour while his boyfriend ran off to an island with most of the other guests.
Jeromy did not sunbathe. His skin and the sun did not mix, so instead of becoming a sun-burnished god like Luca, he usually ended up resembling a dried-up old lobster. Not an attractive look, and one he planned to avoid.
Mercedes, the feisty stewardess, was attentive — offering him drinks and snacks whenever he felt like it. The problem was that food and drink did not alleviate boredom.
Mercedes. What kind of a name was that anyway? A Mexican girl named after a German car. How ridiculous. It was exactly the sort of moronic name movie stars bestowed on their offspring.
Thinking of movie stars, Jeromy wondered where Cliff Baxter had vanished to. Earlier they’d enjoyed a most cordial chat, surely there was more to come? Perhaps Cliff had a house in L.A. that needed redecorating. Or a New York penthouse ready for renovation. Or maybe he could use his persuasive powers to talk Cliff into purchasing a London townhouse.
Jeromy Milton-Gold, designer to the stars. It had a nice ring to it.
Mercedes appeared again. There was something about the girl that was annoying. Perhaps she wasn’t subservient enough for his liking. Or perhaps she was just plain cheap. He wondered if she screwed the passengers on the side. He wouldn’t put it past her — she had that dirty girl air about her. Maybe she’d even had a go at the movie star while his redheaded girlfriend was cavorting somewhere on the island with Luca.
‘Where is Mr Baxter?’ Jeromy enquired, peering down his long nose at her.
‘Ah, you mean Señor Cliff,’ Mercedes said, purposely irritating him.
‘No, I mean Mr Baxter,’ Jeromy said sternly, putting her in her place. ‘You should never call guests by their first names, it’s extremely rude.’
Mercedes stifled a strong urge to tell him to piss off. Her time would come, and when it did she planned to clean this one out, and maybe shove a plunger up his bony ass for good measure. Only this particular hijo de puta would probably enjoy it.
‘Señor Cliff asked me to use his first name,’ she said innocently.
‘I don’t care what he asked you,’ Jeromy admonished. ‘It is simply not done. You are in service here. Learn, dear — it is to your advantage.’
Come mierda, Mercedes thought as she smiled sweetly at Jeromy, deciding that his expensive watch might make a nice birthday present for her next conquest.
* * *
Being on the island was making Taye randier than ever. Getting Ashley out of London and away from it all had worked wonders. She wasn’t all Miss Design Queen and mummy to the twins, she was more like the girl he’d fallen in love with, the free spirit who got off on sexual adventures and was never adverse to giving a blow-job or two. Taye had to admit that getting oral sex from his wife was his favourite activity. He relished the thought of shoving Mammoth into Ashley’s delicate mouth, and holding her head in place while she sucked the life out of him. Before marriage it had been a daily occurrence. After marriage it had become a special treat. And for the last few months it hadn’t happened at all, until last night, when Ashley had excelled at doing what she did better than any other girl he’d been with.
Now he wanted more, and the island seemed like the perfect set-up for a quick bit of sex. Ashley looked so great in her cover-up T-shirt, her big tits sticking out, long legs on parade. Last night he’d made love to her for as long as she could take it, then he’d gone down on her and she’d moaned her appreciation. Frankly he couldn’t keep his hands off his wife.
‘Hey, toots,’ he whispered, grabbing her hand. ‘Follow me. Just saw somethin’ you wouldn’t wanna miss.’
‘What?’ Ashley said, marvelling at a pair of giant turtles crawling along in front of them; it was quite a sight.
‘Back here,’ Taye said, steering her away from the others — pulling her towards a cluster of tall swaying palm trees.
‘What?’ Ashley repeated, slightly irritated.
Taye didn’t give her time to think. He went for her nipples, playing with them in a way that never failed to turn her on.
‘Taye!’ she objected. ‘Not here.’
‘Why not?’ he said, squeezing and twirling.
‘’Cause the others might see.’ Two seconds and then — ‘Oh… my… God!’
He had her. Quick as a flash he whipped out Mammoth, still keeping up the tit action.
‘Go for it, baby,’ he encouraged, pushing her to her knees.
‘Taye…’ she began.
He stifled her objections with Mammoth, and within two delicious minutes he’d achieved a memorable orgasm, leaving Ashley wanting more. Which was fine with him, because he’d be happy to finish the job of satisfying her later.
As far as Taye was concerned, this was turning out to be the perfect trip.
* * *
After skimming through two scripts — both of them disappointing — Cliff realized that he did indeed miss Lori. It was his loss not to have gone on the island trip. Every day shouldn’t be about work, and reading scripts was actually work. Before leaving L.A. he’d had his agent, his manager and Enid all on his case about all the scripts he should read.
‘We need to make decisions,’ his manager had informed him.
‘I think you should seriously consider the spy movie,’ his agent had said.
‘You’ll be bored with Lori before you know it,’ Enid had lectured. ‘See if you can make a dent in those scripts you’ve got piling up. I’ve packed them all for you.’
Wasn’t he supposed to be on vacation with his girlfriend? Why not relax and enjoy it? To hell with work.
Cliff decided that for the next few days he was going to lie back and let himself go with the flow.
* * *
‘What are we going to do?’ Sierra asked Flynn.
Flynn loved the fact that she was referring to them as ‘we’. He shrugged. ‘I don’t know what your situation is with Ham. You’ve been married a long time.’ He paused for a moment, then gazed at her intently. ‘Are you happy?’
‘So!’ she exclaimed, refusing to meet his eyes. ‘Just like that, we’ve gone from not talking for years to am I happy. I’m confused, that’s what I am.’
‘You’re not answering my question.’
‘Are you happy, Flynn?’ she said pointedly, finally looking at him. ‘I guess you must be. Your girlfriend seems smart enough and pretty.’
‘Xuan is not my girlfriend,’ he muttered.
‘You’re sharing a cabin,’ she was quick to remind him.
‘It’s a long story,’ he said, ridiculously pleased that she sounded jealous.
Sierra was now staring at him, unsure of what to say. Should she admit that she was miserable? Should she tell him the truth?
Oh God, she felt so vulnerable. Too much time had passed, they were both grown ups now. Could she trust Flynn? What if the whole fake photos thing was merely a fantasy, a convenient story he’d made up to explain the way he’d treated her?
Was Hammond responsible? At first she’d had no doubts, but why would he do such a thing? How could he? She realized that she would have to confront him. It was the only way to get to the real truth.
‘I’m kind of tired,’ she said at last. ‘I need to spend some time alone thinking things through.’
‘I understand,’ Flynn said, realizing that pushing her was not a good idea. ‘It’s a lot to take in. For both of us.’
‘Yes, it is,’ she answered quietly.
And where do we go from here? he felt like asking. Just friends, lovers no more? What’s the deal, Sierra? Is there a future for us?
Was he experiencing an urge to go back in time, rekindle the feelings they’d once had for each other?
Did he still want her?
His heart said yes.
His head said no.
Whether the photos were fake or not, still didn’t explain the fact that she’d been pregnant with Ham’s baby when she and Ham were involved in a car accident. She’d told him that they were merely platonic friends, so how come the pregnancy? Obviously she had no idea he knew.
Jesus Christ! Why was this happening? Why was Sierra back in his life? Just when he’d gotten together with Mai in Paris and thought that maybe he was finally over Sierra, this had to happen.
Too fucking bad. He could deal with it.
He had no choice.
Muttering under his breath, Manuel led the rich ones back to the beach and the tenders that awaited them. He considered his current group of affluent tourists a bunch of lowlife animals, although animals would never behave in such a disrespectful and lustful way.
Did the tall black man think that nobody noticed when he pulled the large-breasted blonde behind the palm trees and made her do something to him that only putas indulged in?
And the big Russian man having sex with the dark girl under the waterfall. Disgraceful. Couldn’t they wait until they were home and it was nighttime, like normal people?
Manuel was thankful for his wife and daughters. They were fine upstanding women who would never behave in such a lewd and filthy fashion.
As the tourists got into the boats, Guy handed Manuel a healthy tip.
He took it, vowing to himself that he would go back to fishing for a living rather than continuing to deal with people like this. They contaminated him with their unbridled libidos and sexual perversions. He was a simple man, he preferred a simple life.
* * *
Hammond jumped into the boat right behind Lori, sitting himself down beside her.
‘I bet you’re ready for a nice warm shower,’ he said, edging close. ‘Get all that sand out of your pretty little cooch.’
‘Excuse me?’ Lori said, not sure she’d heard him correctly.
Hammond gave an easy chuckle. ‘No offence,’ he said smoothly. ‘That’s what my mother used to say after a day trip to the beach. Of course, our beach was in the Hamptons, but that’s another story.’
Lori stared at him — she wasn’t sure how to respond.
‘You are a very pretty girl,’ Hammond continued, his eyes undressing her. ‘Quite the temptress.’
Cliff had warned her that politicians were horny bastards, and apparently he was right. At first she’d been flattered by Hammond’s attention, but not any more. There was something off-putting about this one.
‘Why didn’t your wife come today?’ she asked, putting the emphasis on the word wife.
‘All this is too energetic for Sierra,’ Hammond replied. ‘She’s quite… delicate.’
‘Really?’ Lori said sharply. ‘She doesn’t look delicate.’
‘I know,’ Hammond said with a put-upon sigh. ‘It’s a personal burden I carry.’ A meaningful pause, then a lowering of his voice. ‘Between us, Lori, Sierra has uh… emotional issues. It’s the sad truth I live with.’
What was this? Confide in Lori Day? ‘Sorry to hear that,’ she said, brushing sand off her bare leg while not believing him at all.
Hammond leaned over, his fingers lightly touching her upper thigh.
She quickly jerked back.
‘You missed a bit,’ he explained.
‘No, I didn’t,’ she snapped.
‘I apologize,’ he said. ‘Merely being helpful.’
Saved by Taye and Ashley who piled into the tender. Taye was grinning as if he was eight years old and had just gotten a new bike for Christmas. Ashley seemed a bit flustered.
‘Wish I’d brought a camera,’ Lori mused, edging away from the Senator.
‘Me too,’ Ashley said, not quite as aloof as usual.
‘We could probably sell our pix to the tabloids for a fortune,’ Lori joked, immediately realizing it was a dumb thing to come out with.
‘I don’t think so,’ Ashley said tartly, exchanging a look with Taye as much as to say — I told you she was a bit rough.
‘I was joking, of course,’ Lori muttered, totally embarrassed.
‘I have a hunch that our host wouldn’t find it particularly funny,’ Ashley said as the tender took off, bouncing over the waves at a brisk pace.
‘Lay off, toots,’ Taye whispered in Ashley’s ear. ‘Give her a break.’
Ashley ignored him; she was too busy thinking about what dress she would wear to dinner. Something dazzling. Something to catch Cliff Baxter’s eye, for she was quite sure that he fancied her. And why not? She was much sexier than his girlfriend.
* * *
Sierra was tempted to reach for the Xanax as she awaited her husband’s return. She also stared longingly at the bottle of vodka Hammond had so thoughtfully ordered to be brought to their room. She knew he preferred to see her medicated, whether it be from pills or booze. That way he felt he was in complete control.
She managed to resist both temptations. Instead she sat by herself in their stateroom, dredging up every past memory she could about the photos, and the way Hammond had attached himself to her after Flynn had left for London, claiming that Flynn had asked him to look out for her. What a lie that had turned out to be. According to Flynn, he had asked no such thing.
So… if Hammond had lied about that, what else?
The photos, of course. She’d shown them to him and he’d carried on about how he’d always known Flynn was a cheater, and that he hadn’t wanted to upset her, but now that she’d seen the proof with her own eyes…
Next he’d insisted on destroying the photos, had taken them from her along with the typewritten note. Then he’d tried to talk her into getting an abortion.
Oh God! Of course. If the photos were fakes naturally he hadn’t wanted her studying them. And if he envisioned her as his future political asset, then Flynn’s baby would certainly not factor into his plans.
Had he crashed his car on purpose? Had he wanted her to lose Flynn’s baby? She shuddered at the thought.
Now that she knew what kind of man Hammond really was, she wouldn’t put anything past him. He was an evil man, hiding beneath the cloak of a political do-gooder.
When Hammond returned from the island trip she was ready to face him. He barged into their stateroom spewing complaints about the heat and the bugs and how he’d had no chance to speak privately to Aleksandr. ‘I deserve more respect from these people,’ he complained. ‘I am a United States Senator, for crissakes. I am destined for great things. If they expect any future favours, they should be aware of who they’re dealing with.’
The man or the monster? she wanted to say, however, she controlled herself.
‘Hammond,’ she said evenly.
‘Sierra,’ he said, mocking her tone as he threw off his sweat-stained T-shirt.
‘I need to ask you a question.’
‘Do you now?’ he said, pulling down his shorts and underwear, showing not a shred of modesty.
‘Seeing Flynn reminded me of those photos.’
‘What photos?’ he snapped, absent-mindedly stroking his balls as he headed towards the bathroom.
‘The ones you faked in college,’ she said bravely. ‘The ones you sent to me and Flynn.’
‘What?’ Stopping at the bathroom door, he turned around and faced her.
‘I was wondering how you managed such a clever job,’ Sierra continued. ‘I mean, it was before Photoshop and all the technology we have today. Did you hire a professional to help you?’
Hammond stared her down, his eyes menacing slits of anger. ‘Have you been talking to that son of a bitch?’ he demanded.
‘What son of a bitch would that be?’ she answered, remaining calm.
‘Do not get smart with me, woman,’ he said angrily. ‘I warned you not to speak to him.’
‘You warn me about a lot of things,’ she said, keeping her tone even. ‘However, we are on a yacht in the middle of an ocean, and I think I can do whatever I like.’
Hammond could not believe the change in her. What the hell was going on? She seemed sober and together, not foggy and compliant. This was unlike the woman he’d grown used to. The woman who never dared to argue. The woman he’d managed to control with his constant threats of harm to her family.
‘You think you can do whatever you like, do you?’ he said, his voice harsh and unforgiving. ‘Perhaps you’re forgetting who you are. You are my wife, and as my wife you do what I tell you to do, or…’ he paused momentarily, his eyes narrowing even more — ‘… you know the consequences.’
‘For God’s sake, Hammond. How long are you going to keep this up?’
‘What’s come over you, Sierra? Suddenly all brave because you had words with an old boyfriend? Do you think he can save you? Your family? And even more important, can Flynn save himself? Think about that for a moment.’ He paused and glared at her threateningly. ‘One phone call and I can make his life a nightmare. I can make sure he never works again. I can have his legs broken, his pretty face smashed in. You know I can.’
‘It’s over, Hammond,’ she said, her voice steady. ‘The moment we get off this boat, I’m leaving you. And I will make sure everyone hears about your threats, so that if anything happens to me or my family — the finger will be pointed at you.’
‘So brave, all of a sudden,’ Hammond jeered. ‘Keep it up, dear, and we will see what happens.’
With those words he stalked into the bathroom and slammed the door shut.
* * *
‘How was it?’ Cliff asked when Lori returned to their stateroom.
‘Oh my God, you were so right about the Senator,’ she replied, flopping down on the bed. ‘He’s a piece of work.’
‘Told you so,’ Cliff said. ‘I can spot ’em a mile off.’
‘But Cliff, the island was fantastic. I wish you could’ve seen it. So beautiful, like something out of a movie. And deserted. No houses. No people. Nothing except wildlife, greenery, and these amazing waterfalls. Oh, and giant turtles,’ she continued excitedly. ‘You would’ve loved it. I wish you’d come with.’
Cliff was pleased to see Lori so animated, like a little kid who’d just experienced her first trip to Disneyland. Sometimes he forgot how young she was. Twenty-four. A mere child. Young enough to be his daughter. Yet old enough to be his lover.
And why exactly did he think it was time to trade her in for a younger, fresher face? Because he was Cliff Baxter? Because he was a star who had to maintain a certain image? To impress his male friends and acquaintances? For his adoring public?
It was all bullshit. He liked Lori, he was comfortable with her. No need for a trade-in at this time.
* * *
‘Listen, toots, have I told you lately how much I love you?’ Taye said, raising his head from between his wife’s thighs to take a deep breath.
‘Oh, for God’s sake — don’t stop now!’ Ashley intoned, lying spreadeagled on the bed in their stateroom, luxuriating in the expertise of her husband’s talented tongue.
‘But I do love you so much,’ Taye insisted. ‘You’re it for me. No other woman. Ever.’
‘Okay, okay — then how about you get on with the job at hand,’ Ashley implored. ‘I’m almost there, don’t stop now.’
‘I won’t let you down,’ Taye answered, grinning.
This trip was doing their marriage nothing but good.
* * *
‘About time you got back,’ Jeromy said, his tone quite snippy.
Luca threw himself down on the bed.
‘Please!’ Jeromy said, curling his lip. ‘You’re all sweaty and nasty. Can you at least take a shower before you mess up our bed?’
Luca placed his hands behind his head and stretched; he had no intention of moving. ‘You made a mistake not coming,’ he remarked, wishing he was still on the magical island.
‘I think not,’ Jeromy replied. ‘Staying on board was very advantageous for me. I had quite a long chat with Cliff Baxter. He might be on the verge of hiring me to design the interior of his next house.’
‘Is he buying a new house?’ Luca said. ‘Lori never mentioned it.’
‘Since when are you so tight with that Lori person?’ Jeromy enquired, feeling quite envious that Luca was busy making friends while he languished on the yacht.
‘I saved her from the hands of the horny Senator,’ Luca said. ‘And you know what? Don’t call her “that Lori person”. If you took the time to get to know her, you’d realize she’s a very sweet girl.’
‘Changing tracks, are we?’ Jeromy said contemptuously. ‘Dying to sneak your way into her dirty little knickers?’
‘Try not to turn into a bitchy queen,’ Luca sighed.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Jeromy huffed. ‘A bitchy queen indeed!’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘How dare you!’
‘How dare I what?’ Luca said flatly.
‘Call me names.’
‘Jeromy,’ Luca said, giving him a long cool look. ‘We really need to talk.’
The dreaded words — we really need to talk. Jeromy had heard them before, and more than once. First from his father, a stern civil servant, who’d beaten him unmercifully when he’d first come out. Then the don at Oxford with whom he’d been desperately in love. Next the septuagenarian Marquis who’d kept him as his pet for several years. And finally the ‘in the closet’ businessman who’d financed his design firm until the man’s wife had found out what was really going on between them and called a halt to all financial dealings.
No. This couldn’t be happening. Luca was his future. They would grow old together. They would enjoy Luca’s fame and money together. This couldn’t happen. He would not allow it.
One way or the other, Jeromy was determined to stop the inevitable.
For the night’s festivities Bianca had requested a Spanish theme. Guy was on to it immediately; he’d swiftly arranged for musicians and a well-known Spanish chef — famous for his seafood paella — to be boated in from the mainland, even though they were several hours out at sea. He’d been informed from the start that no expense was to be spared on this trip. Only the best for Aleksandr Kasianenko and his lady. Guy was sure that if Bianca had requested that Wolfgang Puck be flown in from California to prepare his famous smoked salmon pizza, Aleksandr would oblige.
At sunset, Bianca appeared on deck — a true dazzler in a flounced flamenco dress, white flowers in her jet hair. Aleksandr accompanied her. Not a man to dress up, black pants and a white shirt did it for him.
Guy was a tad envious, for once again they made a ferociously handsome couple. Between them they had everything. Looks, money, power, fame. It wasn’t fair that two people had so much.
Still… he was used to it. Serving the privileged. Catering to their every need. Watching them at play. Hoping for a major tip at the end of the journey. It was the life he’d chosen, and it wasn’t such a bad one.
At least he had a steady partner who professed true love. They shared a cosy apartment in Sydney, and whenever Guy was home — which was not that often — they were quite compatible and took pleasure in doing the same things.
Yes, Guy was satisfied, although he couldn’t help having lust in his heart — not to mention his pants — for the very gorgeous Luca Perez. What a true specimen of magnificent manhood. And talented too. Guy had Luca’s latest song repeating on his iPod, it soothed him during times of stress.
* * *
By the time Hammond emerged from the shower, Sierra was no longer in their stateroom.
Dammit! Where was the devious bitch, his cheating wife, the slut who’d been talking to her ex-boyfriend?
His fury was dark and cold. Did Sierra honestly think she could escape from him just like that? A divorce — even a separation — would ruin his political future. No way would he ever allow that to happen.
One day he was going to run for President, and whether she liked it or not — she would support him — dead or alive.
* * *
‘What happened to you?’ Xuan asked when she returned to their stateroom and found Flynn there. ‘You could’ve told me you were leaving the island.’
‘I got the stomach flu,’ he answered, still thinking about his conversation with Sierra.
‘You seem to be better now,’ Xuan remarked, opening the closet to see if she could rummage up an outfit to wear for dinner. The women on this trip were so impeccably groomed and well dressed. Her choices were limited since she travelled so light, and quite frankly she couldn’t care less. Leave it to the others to prance around in their fancy clothes; she knew that she was smarter and more caring about what was going on in the world than all of them put together.
‘Yeah, I am,’ Flynn said, frustrated that he had to share the same space with Xuan. Much as he valued her friendship, he needed to be alone to think things through. He didn’t appreciate Xuan questioning him, and he was sure that she would — it was her way. ‘I’ll see you upstairs,’ he added, heading for the door.
‘You know, Flynn, you should be careful what you wish for,’ Xuan said sagely. ‘For the fulfilment of wishes does not always provide the answers we crave.’
‘Thanks for that,’ he said dryly. ‘It makes no sense at all.’
‘Think about it,’ she called after him. ‘You’re too clever to get caught up in your own fantasies.’
Ignoring Xuan’s words, Flynn ran into Taye and his blonde wife, all of them on their way to the drinks deck.
‘You feelin’ all right, mate?’ Taye enquired, friendly as usual.
‘Yeah, it was nothing,’ Flynn answered. ‘Five-minute stomach upset.’
‘Eew, nasty!’ Ashley exclaimed, clinging to her husband’s arm as they made their way up the circular staircase. ‘Remember Taye, that time you got the runs on the field in front of thousands of fans?’
‘Oh crap, don’t remind me,’ Taye groaned. ‘Talk about embarrassin’.’
‘Had to throw all your gear away,’ Ashley giggled. ‘Even your mum wouldn’t go near it!’
‘Thanks,’ Taye said, making a face. ‘You certainly know how to feed a bloke’s ego.’
‘And that’s not all I can do,’ Ashley said, giggling suggestively.
Taye decided that his wife on holiday was a whole other woman. And he liked this new Ashley a lot better than her former self.
* * *
Bianca surveyed her guests, all present for drinks with the exception of the Senator. She observed that the Senator’s wife seemed more sociable tonight — Sierra was chatting pleasantly to Cliff Baxter and Lori. Bianca was delighted to note that everyone was in a more relaxed state. Ah yes, the vacation vibe was taking over and she couldn’t be happier.
Aleksandr was at ease too, talking football with Taye and politics with the Asian woman — whom Bianca had secretly christened Miss Intensity.
Luca approached and clinked glasses with her. ‘You and old Aleks certainly know how to throw a party,’ he remarked. ‘Everyone’s having a great time.’
‘You too?’ Bianca questioned.
‘Why’re you askin’ me?’ Luca said, pushing a lock of blond hair off his forehead.
‘’Cause I know you,’ Bianca said, looking at him intently. ‘Something’s on your mind. Spill.’
‘Okay, okay, the deal is I’m missing my kid,’ he confessed. ‘Hate being away from him. You haven’t seen him lately — he’s such a cute kid, Bianca, an’ I don’t wanna miss anything.’
‘He’s with Suga, right?’
‘He sure is, an’ she’s a wonderful mamasita. The best. Warm and nurturing and everything she should be.’
‘Hmm… sounds as if you’re missing her too,’ Bianca ruminated.
‘Hey, I’m not missin’ the sex, we gave that up pretty fast,’ Luca said. ‘But the companionship an’ the fun we had together — yeah, that’s what I miss.’
‘Well, you have Jeromy now,’ Bianca said sagely. ‘He seems like a laugh a minute.’
‘Ah… an’ there lies the problem,’ Luca admitted. ‘Jeromy…’
‘Trouble in Gay City, huh?’ Bianca said with a knowing nod.
‘You could say there’s more than trouble.’
‘Problem is he hates Suga, an’ not only that, he never pays any attention to Luca junior. It’s driving me loco.’
‘That’s not good.’
‘No, it’s not,’ Luca said, shaking his head. ‘If you really want the truth, I think I’ve finally had it with Jeromy. It’s time for me to move on.’
‘Oh dear,’ Bianca sighed.
‘Oh dear what?’
‘We’re on this very special cruise, Luca. Please don’t ruin anything. Can you at least wait to dump him until we get back? Is that possible?’
‘I guess I can try.’
‘For me,’ she pleaded. ‘No dramas.’
‘For you,’ Luca acquiesced. ‘Only please realize that the moment we hit dry land…’
‘I know, I know. And you’re the best!’
Luca gave a wry smile, ‘I try.’
* * *
‘Dinner is served.’ Once again Guy found himself saying the words he loved to hear himself speak.
Everyone gathered by the stairs and began making their way to the upper dining deck.
Sierra looked around and noted that Hammond was still absent. She wondered what he was doing. Busy planning another deluge of threats? She shivered at the thought and determined to stay strong.
Flynn was there. She decided it was best not to talk to him. Hammond was too unpredictable — who knew what he was capable of? She didn’t want Flynn getting involved in any way.
Fortunately there were new seating arrangements. At the dinner-table she found herself seated between Cliff and Luca, which suited her fine.
Hammond appeared before the first course was served. Barely glancing in her direction, he took his seat between Bianca and Ashley, and immediately started talking to Bianca.
It seemed impossible, but was he going to accept the fact that she was moving on? Had he run out of threats? Was this the beginning of a new life for her?
She could only hope.
* * *
After dinner there were professional flamenco dancers for the guests’ entertainment. Fierce-looking women with strong sturdy thighs, and darkly rugged men exhibiting plenty of attitude.
Bianca sat close to Aleksandr enjoying the festivities. Her hand lingered near his crotch; the sensual dancers were putting her in the mood.
Aleksandr absently removed her hand and turned to listen to Xuan, who — as far as Bianca could tell — was carrying on about something boring and political.
Bianca was irritated. Couples were now sitting next to each other in the entertainment area. How come Miss Intensity always managed to find a place next to Aleksandr?
Not that she was jealous. Oh no. The day she was jealous of another woman would be a day indeed.
Bianca possessed extreme confidence, and rightfully so. Her beauty was a given. Her beauty had always taken her wherever she cared to go. No roadblocks. Green lights all the way. Covers on Vogue, Harpers and Vanity Fair. Puff pieces in People, Esquire, even Newsweek and Time.
Bianca. The super-model of all super-models. A woman admired by women and lusted after by men.
Jealous. Ha! Although Aleksandr did seem to be rather taken with the petite Asian woman. Earlier he’d told Bianca that he found Xuan to be quite interesting.
Interesting indeed! Bianca didn’t like her, she was too serious by far. And what was with Xuan and her boyfriend? They barely appeared to notice each other. As far as Bianca could tell, there was no sexual chemistry between them, and that was strange because Flynn was smokin’ hot.
She decided to pay more attention to Flynn, find out what his deal was. Quietly she moved away from Aleksandr, who appeared unaware that she was on the move, too busy solving the problems of the world with Miss Intensity.
The flamenco music was loud, the dancers even louder and overly dramatic as they snaked their way around the dance floor stamping their feet and projecting fake passion.
Bianca made her way over to Flynn, who was sitting by himself. She squeezed up next to him determined to get to know him better. ‘How’re you feeling?’ she asked, putting on her sympathetic face.
He threw her a quizzical look. ‘Does the whole world know I had the runs?’
‘I’m quoting Ashley, a very eloquent young lady.’
‘With enormous tits,’ Bianca whispered, forming a bond between them.
‘Yeah,’ he said wryly. ‘I had kind of noticed.’
‘You’d be gay if you hadn’t,’ Bianca said, clicking her fingers for Mercedes or Renee, the two stewardesses who were always on duty.
Mercedes dutifully made her way over.
‘Two shot glasses of limoncello,’ Bianca ordered, barely looking at her. ‘And bring the bottle.’
Imperious bitch! Mercedes thought. Puta! She couldn’t wait to see the expression on Bianca’s face when Cruz’s men took over the yacht. Who’ll be giving orders then?
‘I gather we’re drinking,’ Flynn said, not averse to the thought.
‘You look like you need a drink,’ Bianca observed.
‘Problems in paradise?’ she enquired, probing gently.
‘Huh?’ he said, rubbing his stubbled chin.
‘Well,’ she said casually, ‘you and your ladyfriend, you’re not exactly all over each other.’
For one wild moment Flynn thought she meant Sierra. Then he realized that she was talking about Xuan. Too bad. He would have quite enjoyed relaying the saga of him and Sierra, if only to get an outside opinion. Not that he would. It was private. It was between him and the love of his life.
Yes, he was forced to admit it, Sierra was indeed still the love of his life. And it wasn’t too late for them, was it?
Realization dawned like a sharp kick in the gut. He wanted her back. In spite of everything, he still loved her.
‘Are you pissed that Xuan is spending so much time talking to Aleksandr?’ Bianca continued, leaning towards him, keeping her voice low.
Flynn snapped back to reality. ‘Are you?’ he countered.
‘Am I what?’ Bianca asked, stroking a strand of her sleek dark hair.
‘Pissed that your boyfriend is all over my… er… girlfriend?’
‘Oh my God!’ Bianca squealed. ‘I can’t believe you just said that!’
‘Didn’t you say it first?’
Mercedes appeared with two shot glasses and a bottle of limoncello. Bianca snatched one of the glasses and hurriedly downed the sweet liquid.
‘Aren’t you joining me?’ she said, fixing Flynn with a challenging look.
‘Tequila’s more my style,’ he replied.
‘A bottle of tequila,’ Bianca snapped at Mercedes. ‘And make it fast.’
‘So what’s going on?’ Flynn asked, sensing that something was on her mind. ‘You seem disturbed. Is Xuan annoying you?’
‘Are you kidding?’ Bianca said, raising an imperious eyebrow. ‘No disrespect to you, only it would take a lot more woman to annoy me. Xuan is like one of those irritating flying bugs you can’t get rid of. She’s after Aleksandr to put up money for all kinds of dumb stuff.’
‘I suppose you mean the school she’s trying to get built in Cambodia?’ Flynn said dryly. ‘Or food and supplies for the hundreds and thousands of refugees in Sierra Leone?’
‘I’m not sure what exactly,’ Bianca said vaguely. ‘Only please understand that this is our vacation, and chasing Aleksandr for money is totally inappropriate.’
‘You want me to tell her to lay off, is that it?’
‘Yes,’ Bianca said firmly. ‘That’s exactly what I want.’
‘I’ll make an attempt,’ Flynn said, thinking that only a rich, spoiled and privileged woman would act in such an insensitive way. ‘Although you need to know that Xuan is extremely single-minded, and when she believes in something it’s all the way.’
‘Maybe you can fuck it out of her,’ Bianca said caustically.
‘I’ll take that as a suggestion,’ Flynn said, reaching for the bottle of tequila Mercedes brought over.
Might as well have a drink or two — maybe it would clear his head.
* * *
Two hours later and Flynn was feeling no pain. The flamenco dancers were long gone, as were most of the guests. The only ones that remained were Bianca, Aleksandr, Hammond and Xuan. They were all drinking too much, and as the drinking progressed, so did the animosity. Hammond kept on making pointed remarks about journalists being the scum of the earth. Journalists, he announced drunkenly, staring straight at Flynn, were lying, cheating, pieces of garbage who continually made up stories — especially about upstanding honest politicians who wanted nothing more than to make the world a better place.
Xuan took umbrage to everything Hammond said, and the two of them argued, while Bianca cosied up to Aleksandr and wished he would suggest it was time for bed.
Flynn managed to keep his cool, until eventually he could hold back no longer. ‘Honest politicians?’ he said sharply. ‘That’s a fuckin’ joke, isn’t it?’
Up until this point he and Hammond had ignored each other. But now the floodgates opened and it was all bets are off.
‘You can talk about jokes,’ Hammond said, rising from his seat. ‘Everyone knows that you’re nothing but a poor-ass loser, a nobody. What have you ever accomplished? Fuck all, as far as I can tell.’
‘Screw you,’ Flynn retaliated, also jumping up. ‘Jesus, Ham, you cheated your way through college, an’ I got a big hunch that’s exactly how you’re handling your so-called political career. Oh yeah, an’ here’s the real joke — one day you’re gonna try to make a run for the Presidency. My ass, they’ll see you for what you are way before that.’
‘Y’know something?’ Hammond slurred. ‘You open your mouth an’ out pours a shitload of crap.’
‘Hey,’ Flynn said, narrowing his eyes. ‘Talking of crap — do not think I don’t know what you did way back. But then I guess you couldn’t get her any other way, right? You had to cheat an’ lie. Fortunately you’re an expert at that, so no problem.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘Sure you do,’ Flynn taunted. ‘The photos, asshole. The fake fuckin’ photos you sent to both of us to break us up. Well, she knows all about it now, so you’re screwed.’
Hammond’s mouth tightened into a thin line, his face reddened. ‘Whatever I did was for her own protection,’ he said angrily. ‘And let me tell you this, you dumb bastard — the truth is that she never loved you, and goddamm it — she never will.’
Xuan leaped to her feet, all five feet two of her. ‘Enough!’ she shouted sternly. ‘Flynn, time for bed. Let’s go.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ Hammond sneered. ‘Run away with your chinky piece of ass. I bet she sucks you off like a true professional.’
Before anyone could stop him, Flynn hauled his fist back and socked Hammond square in the face.
Hammond dropped like a dead weight.
Aleksandr was unamused. He abruptly stood up. ‘Come,’ he said to Bianca, as Kyril miraculously appeared, placing his considerable bulk between Flynn and Hammond. ‘It is time this evening ended.’
Cruz’s gang of Somalian pirates were a wild and dirty-looking bunch, headed by their clan leader, Amiin — the only one of them who spoke English. Amiin took his orders from Cruz, and bossed the other men accordingly. They were a motley crew of misfits who, thanks to a successful pirating operation, had become richer than they’d ever imagined. Half of them were former fishermen who had embraced their chosen profession with zeal, expressing no fear when it came to boarding a vessel at sea, ripe for the plucking. The fruits of their labours were plentiful, allowing them many of the luxuries in life that they never thought they’d see. As long as they had their precious khat to chew on, and a formidable supply of weapons, they were ready to face anything.
Lately they’d been enjoying the good life while awaiting instructions from Amiin, who in turn waited for Cruz to bark his orders.
In Acapulco they’d been entertained by a few chosen hookers. Now, in the guesthouse of the rented villa, they were starting to get restless and most of them were ready to go home to their families.
There were eight of them including Amiin, ranging in age from the youngest at eighteen — Cashoo, Amiin’s nephew — to Basra, a tall skeletal man of indeterminate age with mahogany skin, sunken eyes, unkempt dreadlocks and very few teeth.
Basra was a man to beware of. He had no compunction about shooting to kill if anyone got in his way. He’d done so twice, even though Amiin had lectured him that it was to their advantage not to leave a trail of dead bodies.
Basra didn’t care. He was a lethal weapon — it was best to stay on his good side.
Cashoo had been working with Amiin since he was fourteen, and he’d exhibited a fearlessness that made him a useful member of the team. He was lanky, with light mocha skin, raggedy facial hair, high cheekbones and thin lips. Cashoo’s favourite pastime was sex. He already had several girlfriends back home, but Cashoo was never satisfied.
The moment Ina arrived at the villa, Cashoo’s libido raged out of control. Amiin saw the look of lust in his young nephew’s eyes and sternly warned him not to even glance in the woman’s direction since she belonged to the Big Boss, and as such was untouchable.
A warning didn’t stop Cashoo: he’d never seen a woman like Ina before and he was completely smitten.
The pirates were confined to the guesthouse on the property, although they were working on stocking their high-speed boats, loading supplies and weapons, preparing for the strike against The Bianca.
As soon as Ina arrived, she took up a position by the pool in a patterned orange bikini that barely covered any of her considerable assets — and they were quite considerable, considering the twenty pounds she’d gained since her reign as Miss Mexico.
Cashoo lusted from afar.
Ina threw him a flirtatious smile.
Cruz noticed what was going on and ordered Ina to get back inside the house pronto.
‘Since when’re you the boss of me?’ Ina enquired, a steely glint in her over-mascaraed eyes. ‘It’s not as if I’m your snivelly kid you can boss around.’
There was no love lost between Ina and Cruz’s daughter, Mercedes. Ina was jealous that Mercedes got to work with her poppa, while she, Cruz’s sister, had never been asked. Plus Mercedes was younger and prettier and Cruz paid her plenty of money for — as far as Ina was concerned — doing nothing.
‘You cause any trouble an’ I kick your fat ass,’ Cruz warned her.
‘What trouble?’ Ina asked innocently. ‘You’re the one that makes trouble.’
She knew that the men who worked for Cruz were watching her with lust in their hearts, and she revelled in the attention.
* * *
Meanwhile, Sergei was all business. For the last few days he’d been mulling over a decision, and now that the time to strike was almost upon him, he had to make up his mind. To hold The Bianca for ransom was move number one. However, was that punishment enough for the son of a bitch who’d murdered his brother? The money wouldn’t bring Boris back. Besides, what did money really mean to Aleksandr Kasianenko? The man was richer than God.
So Sergei had decided on a plan that would take the hijack one step further. They would certainly hold The Bianca for ransom, and once the money was paid and Cruz’s team relinquished the boat and its passengers, the authorities would find that one key passenger was no longer aboard.
Sergei had no doubt that kidnapping Aleksandr Kasianenko was the only true way of taking his revenge.
The talk at the breakfast-table was all about last night’s fight. News soon spread, and by the light of day everyone knew about it.
Bianca was somewhat put out. She’d already told Luca that she didn’t want any drama on the trip, and now this had to happen. ‘You’ve got to do something,’ she’d informed Aleksandr the moment they got back to their stateroom the night before. ‘We can’t have our trip ruined by some stupid argument.’
‘I understand,’ he’d assured her. ‘It will be dealt with.’
Now it was morning and everybody was trying to figure out what was going on. Why were Hammond and Flynn such bitter enemies? And who was the ‘she’ Hammond had mentioned?
Bianca corralled Luca and gave him a blow-by-blow account of the fracas.
Luca wanted details. Bianca supplied what she knew.
Taye was upset that he’d missed the fight — or at least the knockout punch. Ashley wasn’t, she hated any kind of violence.
Jeromy was relieved that something else was taking centrestage. He and Luca had yet to have ‘the talk’. Somehow or other he’d managed to avoid it.
The previous night Hammond had retreated to his room with a burgeoning black eye only to find Sierra sleeping. They hadn’t spoken since their earlier confrontation, and when he awoke the next morning she was gone.
Xuan had attempted to calm Flynn down, but it wasn’t possible because he was boiling. He’d slept fitfully on the couch, and in the morning had headed straight to the gym, making a futile attempt to work off his raging aggression. He stayed there until Guy appeared and informed him that Mr Kasianenko would like to see him.
Guy was loving every minute of the goings-on. One day, when he wrote his tell-all book, this would make a fine chapter. Yes, it could go right next to the chapter about the garment tycoon who one year had rented a luxury yacht, filled it with hookers, and barely got them off the day his wife and children arrived. The crew had had to hustle that day.
Ah, fond memories of life at sea…
* * *
‘We missed all the excitement,’ Lori said to Cliff over breakfast.
He smiled at her across the table, white movie-star teeth in full bloom. ‘Maybe we’re lucky, sweetie. Wouldn’t want to get involved.’
‘Exactly,’ Ashley chimed in, pushing scrambled eggs across her plate. ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there. I can’t stand seeing men fight.’
‘Me too,’ said Lori, taking a bite of toast.
‘Does anyone know what it was all about?’ Ashley asked, curious to get the details.
Jeromy shrugged his shoulders. ‘Extremely childish, if you ask me. And most disrespectful to our host.’
‘What about your hostess?’ Bianca said, joining the table with Luca right behind her.
‘Naturally I meant you too,’ Jeromy said, wondering where the hell they’d been. He did not appreciate Luca running off with Bianca. Were they talking about him behind his back? He certainly hoped not.
‘I’m really glad there were no paparazzi around,’ Cliff said, reaching for the orange juice. ‘’Cause if there were, everything would’ve been my fault. I’d be splashed all over TMZ with Harvey making rude comments.’
‘Or if it was the bloody English press, I’d be the one to get the shitty end of it,’ Taye interjected, staking his claim to fame. ‘They get off on blaming me, it’s a national sport.’
‘You’re both wrong,’ Bianca said grandly. ‘I can see the headlines now — SUPER-MODEL CAUSES FIGHT BETWEEN RUSSIAN OLIGARCH AND AMERICAN SENATOR. I always get the blame.’
‘Aleksandr wasn’t involved, was he?’ Ashley asked innocently.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Bianca said, tossing back her long dark hair. ‘All they’re after is a headline to sell their story. Believe me, they like nothing better than putting my photo on the front page. Preferably in a bikini.’
‘She’s right,’ Luca agreed.
‘How positively juvenile!’ Jeromy said with a peevish toss of his head.
Mercedes listened to them all as she hovered near the table ready to serve. She’d already figured out what was going on. The day before, she’d eavesdropped on Flynn’s conversation with the Senator’s wife. Well, it didn’t take a genius to realize there was history there. The Senator had a hard-on against the journalist ’cause he figured the guy was out to fuck his wife. It was simple, only these cabrons didn’t get it. They were too self-obsessed.
Late last night she’d sent her latest report to Cruz. He needed to know if she thought any of the guests would put up resistance. As far as she could tell, the journalist was the only one with balls, and she’d already checked that he had no weapons. The rest of them — easy street. Although she’d discovered that Aleksandr kept a loaded gun in his bedside drawer. And Kyril could be a slight problem — only slight, for Mercedes knew exactly how she would handle him when the time came.
After dinner the night before, she’d taken Kyril a mug of hot chocolate. She was working on a hunch that he might like it.
Right again. The big man had drunk it down, smacked his lips and informed her it was good. Then his beady eyes had inspected her cleavage once again, and she’d known she was on the right track.
Hot chocolate and a flash of tit. She had Kyril’s number.
* * *
‘Hey,’ Flynn said, walking out onto the private terrace of Aleksandr’s stateroom. ‘Nice digs.’
Aleksandr put down the sheaf of papers he was reading and nodded at Flynn. ‘I cannot blame you for last night.’ he said gruffly. ‘I also cannot condone what you did.’
Flynn didn’t give a damn what Aleksandr thought. If it wasn’t for Sierra he would have gotten off the yacht as soon as possible. But no, he wasn’t about to walk out of her life again, not until he knew exactly where they stood.
‘In Russia we toast with vodka, to make the peace,’ Aleksandr went on. ‘Is that possible?’
‘Sure,’ Flynn said, Hammond’s words still ringing in his ears. She never loved you — and she never will. What a fucking piece of shit.
Aleksandr buzzed for Guy. ‘Bring vodka and fetch the Senator,’ he ordered. ‘Now.’
As usual, Guy jumped. Last night’s activities certainly broke the monotony of being on a yacht. A bit of excitement was always welcome — sometimes things went along too smoothly.
Ten minutes later, Hammond appeared wearing dark shades and a scowl.
‘We put this nonsense to rest,’ Aleksandr stated firmly as Guy handed out shot glasses filled with vodka. ‘We toast to peace and harmony.’
Flynn threw his vodka back, as did Hammond. They hardly looked at each other. Hatred lingered in the air.
Aleksandr nodded sagely. ‘Today is the day for water sports,’ he said, standing up. ‘Come, gentlemen, we have many toys to play with.’
* * *
The day passed filled with a flurry of activities, including riding the Jet Skis and WaveRunners, water-skiing, and exploring the crystal-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez.
Everyone threw themselves into having fun, everyone except Jeromy, who claimed his English skin was far too delicate to be exposed to the elements.
‘C’mon, mate,’ Taye encouraged, climbing back on board after his third trip on a Wave Runner. ‘You dunno what you’re missin’. It’s fantastic.’
Jeromy rolled his eyes, indicating his lack of enthusiasm. ‘Oh, I think I do know what I’m missing,’ he said, with a supercilious smirk. ‘Extreme sunburn and aching muscles.’
‘Party-pooper,’ Taye said with a good-natured shrug.
Luca hauled himself aboard next, bronzed and beautiful as usual. ‘Another race?’ he said to Taye, shaking droplets of water from his mop of blond hair.
‘You’re on,’ Taye said, always up for a challenge.
Jeromy stared at the two specimens of manhood standing before him. They were both in perfect shape. Taye, all gleaming black skin and defined muscles. Luca, so edible in his tight swim shorts, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Jeromy felt aroused. Random anonymous sex was as necessary to him as a full meal, and usually, on land, he could pick up someone to satisfy him. Now he was trapped on a yacht, so where could he find the temporary satisfaction he craved?
The answer came to him in a flash. Guy. The entertainment director. He was gay, wasn’t he? He was there to serve, right?
The women were lolling on a giant hooded inflatable Lilo bobbing around in the sea. It held four people — so Lori, Bianca, Sierra and Ashley had taken up residence. Flynn and Cliff had gone scuba-diving, while Hammond was at the pool, sitting with Aleksandr and Xuan.
Jeromy took advantage of everyone being occupied and approached Guy. ‘Kindly accompany me to my room,’ he said. ‘There is something I have been meaning to show you.’
‘Should I call the housekeeper?’ Guy asked, wondering what was up.
‘No, no, it’s something that you should see first,’ Jeromy said, smoothing down his beige linen shirt — Tom Ford, of course.
‘Right,’ Guy said, following the uptight Englishman down the stairs to the stateroom he shared with Luca.
As soon as they were inside the room, Jeromy quickly turned, slammed the door shut and placed himself in front of it.
‘What can I help you with?’ Guy enquired, imagining complaints about cleanliness or not enough towels — which was really not his problem.
‘Here’s what you can help me with — this,’ Jeromy said, unzipping his shorts while still blocking the door.
Guy took one look and was immediately horrified. A guest exposing himself was the last thing he’d expected.
Jeromy shook his penis free, a long thin weapon of destruction. ‘Suck it,’ he commanded. ‘You know how to do that, don’t you?’
Guy recoiled. Oral sex was not part of his job description. This untoward demand was unexpected and degrading. He was shocked.
‘I’m… I’m sorry,’ he stammered, almost speechless. ‘I… I… can’t.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ Jeromy said roughly, while continuing to block the door. ‘Simply do it, dear boy. It’s a cock you’re looking at. You’ve seen one of those before, haven’t you?’
‘Oh yes, my dear boy, you certainly can,’ Jeromy said, feeling the need for an urgent release. ‘Because if you value your job, you’ll do it, and you’ll do it fast. Or perhaps you would prefer me to tell Mr Kasianenko that you came onto me, then we’ll see what he does about that. My instinct is that he’ll fire your arse, and I’m sure you know I’m right.’
Yes, Guy knew that he was. Reluctantly he fell to his knees and did what the bony Englishman required.
Sometimes a man had no choice but to put his job first.
* * *
‘Tell the truth,’ Bianca sighed, languidly trailing her hand in the calm blue sea. ‘Isn’t Aleksandr the sexiest man ever?’
No, Lori was tempted to say. Cliff possesses that title — courtesy of People magazine.
‘He’s pretty damn sexy,’ Ashley chirped, blond hair piled on top of her head, bosoms fighting to stay hidden beneath the confines of her minuscule bikini top. ‘But then so is my Taye.’
‘You got that right,’ Bianca agreed, thinking of her one night of lust with Taye and savouring the distant memory. ‘Taye’s a hot one. I’d hang onto him if I were you.’
‘I already have,’ Ashley said with a crazed giggle. ‘My husband’s besotted with me — in case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘Oh yes, I’ve noticed,’ Bianca said. ‘He walks around with a permanent hard-on, or is that just his normal package?’
Ashley managed a quick blush. ‘I am a lucky girl, aren’t I?’ she said, giggling again.
‘You certainly are,’ Bianca said, turning to Lori. ‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘Getting any closer to snagging Cliff?’
Oh damn. Not again. Why was everyone questioning her about Cliff’s intentions? ‘Didn’t I tell you? I’m too young to get married,’ Lori answered, going for the flippant approach.
‘A girl is never too young to pin the guy she wants,’ Bianca advised. ‘If he asks, you gotta say yes.’
‘I’ll remember that,’ Lori said, as Bianca shifted her attention to Sierra.
‘How long have you and Hammond been married?’ Bianca asked the Senator’s wife.
Sierra was lying back, enjoying the sun while trying not to think about the inevitable confrontation with Hammond, which was yet to come. She’d heard about last night’s altercation between her husband and Flynn. No details — only something about Hammond insulting all journalists and Flynn striking back.
She wished she could talk to Flynn, find out exactly what had happened, but she couldn’t do that. The two men were already at war; no need to add fuel to the fire.
‘A few years,’ she answered vaguely.
‘It must be so exciting being married to a Senator,’ Ashley enthused. ‘And an attractive one at that.’
Don’t forget horny, Lori was tempted to say, but once again she stopped herself.
‘Yes,’ Sierra said quietly. ‘It’s a lot of work though. Fund-raisers, endless functions, meet and greets. It can get quite tiring.’
‘With plenty of perks, I bet,’ Bianca said, thinking that if Sierra ever became First Lady, she wouldn’t mind being best friends. A night at the White House sounded like a fun plan. ‘And of course, you’ve got all the designers offering you incredible outfits, right?’ she added.
‘And you get to meet the President, don’t you?’ Lori said, slightly in awe.
‘Taye an’ I met the Prime Minister of England a couple of times,’ Ashley said, joining in. ‘We’ve also been to a tea party at Buckingham Palace. Prince William loves Taye, goes to all his big games.’
‘What kind of tea party?’ Lori asked curiously.
‘It’s a Brit thing,’ Ashley said. ‘All outrageous hats, and tea and crumpets in the Palace gardens.’
‘Wow!’ Lori exclaimed. ‘Sounds fancy.’
‘Oh, it is,’ Ashley said boastfully. ‘Only special people get invited.’
Sierra felt it was time to move on. She slid quietly off the Lilo and into the calm blue water. After a few moments, she swam to the side of the yacht where a deckhand helped her aboard.
And there was Flynn, sitting on a bench with Cliff, the two of them just having finished scuba diving.
‘How was it?’ she found herself asking.
‘Incredible,’ Cliff said. ‘A must-do. I’ve been around, and I’ve never seen an underwater scene like it. It’s a wonderland.’
Her eyes met Flynn’s — the connection between them was white-hot.
Flynn dragged his eyes away as he stood up and reached for a towel.
‘Would you care to give it a try, Mrs Patterson?’ one of the deckhands asked.
‘Why not?’ she said quietly.
‘I can dive with you,’ the eager deckhand offered, handing her a snorkel, mask and fins.
‘That’s okay,’ Flynn said quickly. ‘I think I’ll go back in.’
‘You’re gonna love it, Sierra,’ Cliff encouraged.
‘I’m sure I will,’ she murmured.
‘I’d come back in, but I’m going to find Lori,’ Cliff said. ‘She’ll really get a thrill.’
Sierra barely heard him, because now Flynn was staring at her again, and this time he held the look.
Their eyes locked, and in those few seconds she knew that everything was about to change.
She still loved him, there was no doubt about it.
Eddie March was livid that Hammond had failed to call him back. He was in the middle of handling a major crisis, and the Senator could not be bothered to pick up a satellite phone — or whatever there was on the yacht he was so busy cruising on.
The Byrne family were getting even more restless, and to top everything off, Hammond’s fifteen-year-old illegitimate daughter, Radical, had been thrown out of her Swiss boarding school, and was on her way back to New York.
Radical was a nightmare, and Eddie was in no mood to deal with her too. The Byrnes were enough work. Keeping them from going public was getting increasingly difficult. He’d even offered them money until he could sort things out. ‘We do not want money,’ Martin Byrne had informed him with a steely glare. ‘We want to hear the Senator’s side of the story.’
So do I, Eddie thought.
He tried calling the yacht again, and this time he was told that the Senator was unreachable.
‘Where is he that he’s so unreachable?’ Eddie demanded.
‘Exploring the ocean,’ the First Officer replied. ‘I will certainly see that he gets your message.’
Exploring the ocean indeed! While he, Eddie March, was shovelling the shit. It wasn’t right. If he didn’t get a call back soon, he was telling the Byrnes to do what they liked.
Hammond had created a mess, and it was up to him to deal with it.
The underwater paradise was so peaceful that Sierra forgot about everything and managed to lose herself in the array of marine life. She was fully occupied marvelling at the vivid colours and incredible shapes of the numerous fish, although she was fully aware that Flynn was in the ocean with her — and that made everything perfect.
When they finally surfaced, he reached out for her hand, and as they touched, the electricity between them was startling. They bobbed in the water facing each other.
‘You okay?’ he asked, wishing she would open up to him.
‘I will be,’ she replied softly.
‘We need to talk some more.’
‘I know,’ she murmured. It felt blissful, being near him.
Another intense look.
The spell was broken when Cliff jumped into the sea with Lori, and the two of them swam over to join Flynn and Sierra.
‘Found her!’ Cliff crowed. ‘Now I’m gonna show her the wonders that lurk below.’
‘Boasting about your crown jewels again,’ Lori quipped, treading water beside him, her red hair piled on top of her head.
‘Funny girl,’ Cliff replied, and they smiled warmly at each other.
Lori was delighted. Things were definitely looking up.
Sierra moved away from the group and swam towards the yacht. She couldn’t avoid Hammond any longer. It was time to decide how they would handle the situation. No more threats. No more cowering. With or without Flynn, she had made up her mind that once this trip was over, she would free herself of Hammond forever.
* * *
‘I told Flynn to have his girlfriend lay off asking you for money,’ Bianca said, snuggling close to Aleksandr as they lay out by their private lap pool. It was after lunch, and they’d left their guests to their own devices.
Aleksandr pushed her away and sat up. ‘You did what?’ he said, raising his heavy eyebrows. Bianca was interfering with something that didn’t concern her and it annoyed him.
‘I simply told him to get Xuan to stop bugging you,’ Bianca said. ‘It was getting to be too much.’
‘Too much for whom?’ Aleksandr asked, his tone sharp.
‘Well, for me actually,’ Bianca answered, narrowing her green eyes. ‘This trip is supposed to be all about you and me, and every time I turn around, there’s Little Miss Do-Gooder bugging you for money for another of her precious causes. I can’t take it.’
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ Aleksandr said, his face darkening. ‘It is not for you to decide who I speak to, or what we speak about.’
Bianca frowned. ‘Excuse me?’ she said haughtily. Was Aleksandr actually scolding her?
‘You heard me,’ Aleksandr said, getting up and walking inside.
Furiously, Bianca leaped to her feet and followed him. ‘What is it with you and that girl?’ she demanded. ‘Do you want to fuck her? ’Cause if you do, just tell me an’ I’ll make out with Flynn. He’s quite the hunk, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Aleksandr stared her down, his eyes cold and disapproving. ‘What is wrong with you?’ he said at last. ‘Are you so insecure that because I talk to another woman you think I want to be with her? What kind of nonsense is that? I do what pleases me, Bianca, and never forget it.’
Bianca scowled. Her plan of getting Xuan to leave Aleksandr alone was failing dismally.
* * *
Luca and Taye decided to organize a Jet-Ski contest. Later in the afternoon they rounded up everyone who wished to participate.
‘Girls against dudes,’ Luca suggested with a cheeky grin. ‘Where’s Bianca?’
‘I’m here,’ she said, joining them. She was not prepared to spend the afternoon with Aleksandr. It was about time he realized he couldn’t talk to her in such a dismissive way. He’d called her insecure and that didn’t fly. Insecure indeed. Screw him.
‘You can head the girls’ team,’ Luca said to Bianca. ‘An’ Taye — you up for playin’ Captain?’
‘Are you kiddin’ me?’ Taye said, running a hand over his shaved head. ‘It’s my job, so get ready — ’cause I’m gonna kick everyone’s arse.’
Soon the crew had assembled a fleet of Jet Skis — and they were off.
Lori raced Ashley and to Lori’s surprise she actually won. Then Bianca went up against Xuan — and to Bianca’s extreme annoyance, Xuan beat her.
After that it was the guys’ turn. Luca and Cliff raced — and Luca was the winner. Then it was Flynn and Taye — a hard battle until Flynn ruled triumphant.
Everyone threw themselves into it, except Aleksandr who wasn’t present, Jeromy, who hovered on the sidelines looking thoroughly bored, and the Pattersons who were not around.
Guy helped the proceedings move forward even though he was humiliated beyond belief. At least he still had his job, no thanks to Jeromy Milton-Gold.
Guy couldn’t even glance in the English man’s direction. He hated him with a deep intensity and was starting to think about how he might get his revenge. Surely there had to be a way?
The final race was between Luca and Xuan. When Xuan lost, Bianca could hardly conceal her delight.
Karma’s a bitch, bitch.
Bianca smiled her satisfaction.
* * *
The moment of reckoning was near. Sierra was well aware that it had to take place soon, and she was not avoiding it; in a perverse way she was even looking forward to it. Standing up to Hammond was something she should’ve done a long time ago. He’d cheated and lied his way into her life, she’d lost Flynn’s baby because of him, and he’d kept her a prisoner with his dire threats against her and her family. Well, no more. It was over, and she was finally ready to break free.
They met up in their stateroom. She’d gone straight there after her underwater adventure, taken a shower, dressed, and waited for him to appear.
Hammond walked in wearing dark glasses, which he immediately removed to show off a serious black eye. ‘This is because of you,’ he said accusingly. ‘This is what your piece of shit boyfriend did to me for no good reason.’
‘He’s not my boyfriend,’ she said evenly. ‘And I’m sure you gave him an excellent reason.’
‘You think so, do you?’ Hammond sneered.
‘I understand you were both drinking.’
‘Where did you hear that?’ he said, his tone bitter. ‘Did your boyfriend come running to tell you?’
‘No Hammond, he didn’t,’ she replied, determined not to break. ‘And I’d appreciate it if we can conduct an adult conversation for once.’
‘Go ahead,’ he said coldly. ‘Say what you have to say.’
She took a long drawn-out breath and went for it. ‘I’m sure you know how unhappy I am, and that we’d be better apart, so I’ve made a decision. I will stay with you for the duration of this trip, present a united front to prevent embarrassing you. And then, when the trip is over — so are we.’ She swallowed hard. ‘I want a divorce, Hammond. I mean it.’
‘Really?’ he said, surprisingly calm.
‘Look,’ she continued, her words tumbling over each other, ‘I understand this has political implications for you — only surely you can see that it doesn’t mean the end of your career? These things happen. Divorce is not uncommon amongst politicians—’
‘You vapid, asinine bitch!’ Hammond exploded, his voice filled with venom. ‘God Almighty, I knew you were stupid, but this kind of talk goes beyond stupidity. Don’t you understand that it’s not possible? I repeat — divorce is not possible.’ His voice rose to a vicious shout. ‘One day I am going to be the fucking President of America, and you — my dear wife — are going to be right up there next to me. Otherwise—’
‘Otherwise what?’ she said bravely, holding her ground, trying not to revert to the weak-willed Sierra who’d put up with his bullying and threats for too many years.
‘Otherwise,’ Hammond said ominously, ‘you’ll be dead. And so will your fucking boyfriend.’
* * *
Listening outside their door, Mercedes felt a shiver of excitement. Drama on the high seas. Only this drama would mean nothing in comparison to what was to come. Little did they know what was in store for them.
Guy had sent her to deliver a message to Senator Patterson about someone trying to reach him via satellite phone. Guy was in a shitty mood, barking orders as if he was the Captain. Idiota. He would never make Captain, he didn’t have the stones. Besides, he was gay, and how many gay men made Captain?
Probably this wasn’t a good time to interrupt the Pattersons. She knocked on the door anyway. What did she care that the imbécil was threatening to kill his wife. The puta probably deserved it, seeing that she was jumping the bones of the sexy journalist guy, or at least it looked that way.
Hammond flung open the door. ‘What?’ he said curtly.
Mercedes stared at his mother of a black eye, handed him the neatly typed message and enquired if he’d like her to accompany him to the communications room.
He barely glanced at the message, said a short, sharp ‘No!’ and slammed the door in her face.
What a cabron. Mercedes thought, switching her allegiance to the wife, who seemed like a nice enough woman, unlike the other putas on the boat who all acted as if they were better than everyone else, especially the blonde with the big tits and the hot black husband.
Yet another hot guy. If she wasn’t working, this could be quite a trip. However, work always came first. And at the conclusion of this particular trip she was going for it, taking everything she could get her greedy hands on.
Money and jewelry. She considered it her bonus.
On any boat at sea in close quarters — albeit extremely luxurious ones — friends are made, idle gossip abounds, and all thoughts of the real world drift away. Aleksandr’s ploy of enticing everyone to give up their iPhones, BlackBerrys, iPads and computers for a delicious uninterrupted week of lazy bliss was a solid one. For emergencies there was always satellite communication.
A successful vacation equals relaxation — and Aleksandr expected his guests to leave their everyday lives behind.
Personally he was enjoying himself. Sex with Bianca was spectacular, although her nagging about Xuan was annoying. His conversations with the Asian woman were interesting and in a way quite challenging, and in spite of Bianca’s objections he had no intention of giving them up. Trust Flynn to have come up with a woman who was not only very attractive, but smart too. And he was most impressed that Xuan wasn’t intimidated by him, not at all.
If he wasn’t with Bianca, Aleksandr realized that he might have entertained different thoughts about Xuan. Sexual thoughts. However, he was in a committed relationship with Bianca, so all fantasies of sex with Xuan were banished to the back of his mind. Besides, she was with Flynn, and he would never disrespect a man like Flynn, whom he considered a true friend.
He was disturbed that Senator Patterson had behaved so badly the night before. The man had deserved to get hit. Quite frankly, Aleksandr was pleased to see Hammond receive a black eye, for he’d already decided there was something about him that he didn’t like. Hammond possessed a pleasant and ingratiating exterior, but lurking beneath was a deep hard core of something else.
Aleksandr had always considered himself to be an astute judge of character, and he didn’t trust Hammond. He decided he would keep an eye on the man’s further rise to power, then he would act accordingly when the inevitable request came to donate money and support for the Senator’s campaign.
Yes, Aleksandr knew for sure that the day would eventually come.
* * *
After the race, Bianca hung out with Luca and Taye by the pool. She wasn’t about to run back to Aleksandr’s side. He could sometimes be unpredictable and bossy. It pissed her off. How dare he get mad at her! He was the one paying too much attention to Little Miss Intensity.
She was particularly irritated because she’d never treated a man as well as she’d treated Aleksandr. Shouldn’t he be kissing her beautiful tight ass like everyone else?
Didn’t Aleksandr get it? She was Bianca. A super-star in her field. She was not used to being lectured and told what to do.
Damn him! And damn Flynn for bringing his Asian girlfriend aboard. The two of them were hardly the same calibre as the other guests.
Bianca sighed. It was her own fault, she should’ve vetted the guest-list more closely. Xuan and Flynn were not a good fit for the rest of the group, although she had to admit that Flynn was wildly sexy with his action movie-star looks — not all groomed and perfect as was Cliff Baxter. Flynn was more edgy — like a roughed-up Ryan Reynolds with a touch of Alex O’Loughlin, the actor who played Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O.
Another time, another place, and she would’ve definitely hit that.
And talking of hitting that…
Mischievously she leaned over to Taye who was busy sunning himself, his black skin soaking up the sunlight. ‘Hey sexy,’ she said in a low seductive whisper. ‘Remember way back when you and I got it on?’
Taye shot up, startled. Oh shit. Where was Ashley? If she even suspected that he and Bianca had done the dirty, she would have his frigging balls for breakfast, even though it had taken place long before he and Ashley were together.
‘You don’t have to worry,’ Bianca crooned. ‘Wifey’s in the hair salon getting all prettied up for you.’
Taye breathed again.
‘We would’ve made incredible babies,’ Bianca mused, having fun playing with him. ‘Can you imagine how gorgeous they would’ve been with our genes?’
‘Jesus, Bianca!’ Taye muttered, totally alarmed. ‘It was years ago, right? Best keep it to yourself, okay?’
‘If you mean would I tell Ashley, of course not,’ Bianca said guilelessly. ‘Although we were both free agents then, so we’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. It wasn’t like we were cheating on anyone.’
‘Who’s guilty?’ Taye said, manning up. ‘The problem is, my wife has a raging jealous streak. She still goes on and on at me about my first girlfriend, way back when I was a twelve-year-old kid!’
Luca surfaced from his nearby lounger, a huge grin on his tanned face. ‘How come you never told me?’ he said, directing his words toward Bianca. ‘Keepin’ secrets, huh?’
‘Oh fuck!’ Taye groaned.
‘My lips are shut tight,’ Luca said, still grinning.
‘They’d better be,’ Taye grumbled.
Bianca stood up and dived into the pool. Revealing other people’s secrets always made her feel so much better.
* * *
What next? Flynn didn’t know and it was driving him crazy. Apart from his brief underwater interlude with Sierra — where talking was obviously not an option — he had no idea where her head was at.
Did she feel the same way as he did?
Had any of those old feelings resurfaced?
Was it even possible to go back?
He didn’t know. It was up to her.
Hammond’s words still reverberated in his head. She never loved you and she never will.
* * *
Cliff was behaving like a changed man. Lori wasn’t sure what had come over him, although it was definitely something. She’d never known him to be this affectionate and attentive.
Was it because of the Senator’s blatant flirting with her?
Was it because he was on vacation and the pressures of always playing Mister Movie Star were turned off for once?
She didn’t know and she didn’t care, for this was a whole new Cliff Baxter. This was the man she’d fallen in love with.
After the afternoon’s water sports and the under-the-sea spectacular, Cliff had taken her by the hand and suggested they repair to their room.
That was fine with her. She knew what he wanted and was prepared to oblige. But no, getting blown was not what he had in mind. His intent was to please her.
She was shocked and surprised, for making sure she was satisfied was not high on Cliff’s agenda. When it came to bedroom activities, he was always the star.
Today things were different. Today Cliff was heading in a whole other direction.
He started kissing her the moment they entered their room. The kissing was dreamy, and soon led to him removing her bikini top and caressing her breasts, paying special attention to her nipples as his mouth moved downwards.
Lori shivered with the unexpected pleasure of it all, revelling in his touch. After a while she reached down to fondle his crotch. He quickly pushed her hand away. ‘Not yet,’ he said, his voice a husky drawl. ‘Lay down on the bed, baby. I want to look at you.’
She did as he asked, feeling totally turned on.
Cliff stood over her, gazing at her taut body clad in nothing but the bottom half of her bikini. ‘I never get to see you like this,’ he said. ‘You have a really beautiful body.’
Compliments too! This was unbelievable.
Then he bent down and began slowly peeling her bikini bottom off until she was completely naked. Next he rose and stood back, once more admiring her, his eyes taking in every inch.
Lori shivered with the intensity of it all. She’d never felt more exposed and yet filled with so much excitement.
She gazed up at him as his hands settled on her thighs, gently pushing her legs apart. And after that he did something that he’d only ever done to her once before, and that was the first time they’d made love. He actually began performing oral sex on her.
Lori threw her hand across her eyes and writhed across the bed.
‘Keep still,’ he commanded. ‘You know you like it, baby. You know you do.’
Who wouldn’t? Cliff Baxter, star of a million women’s fantasies, was going down on her, his tongue darting in and out of her most private places.
A mind-blowing orgasm was swift. And the moment she reached the pinnacle, he dropped his shorts and moved on top of her, lazily fucking her until she came again.
It was the best time they’d ever had in bed.
Somehow, Lori had a strong suspicion that dumping her was no longer on Cliff’s mind.
Sergei grunted like a soon-to-be-satisfied pig as he screwed his ex-beauty queen girlfriend doggie-style. Ina was getting fat. It didn’t bother him; he got off on squeezing the rolls of flesh gathered around her waist, then digging into her giant ass with his penis which was not as large as he would’ve liked, although who needed a big cock when a man had endless drug money and a certain amount of power?
Ina was adept at providing other girls for sex when he was in the mood, which was a bonus, for his skinny American cunt girlfriend Cookie felt that she was too special to be shared, and Sergei had always been partial to a threesome.
Lately he’d been thinking of cutting Cookie loose. All she ever did was whine, complain about inconsequential shit, and spend his money shopping for ridiculously expensive shoes and bags.
The upside was that she was an American girl who’d once been in a successful movie, therefore showing up with her boosted his ego when he was invited to grand functions in Mexico City. She was the arm-candy to get him noticed.
Over the years Sergei had done ‘favours’ for a lot of important people, including well-placed politicians and high-ranking members of the police force. In return he was invited everywhere. It was a side of his life he enjoyed; it swelled his chest with importance, and a dressed-up Cookie was the perfect girl by his side. Ina wouldn’t cut it — too obvious and trampy.
After finishing the task at hand, he pulled out and favoured Ina with a couple of hefty slaps on her generous butt.
‘You’re a sow,’ he growled, not unaffectionately.
‘’Scuse me?’ she said, reaching for her robe.
‘Big titties. Big ass,’ he guffawed. ‘I like it all.’
‘So does everyone else around here,’ she boasted, flouncing across the room, not sure she was down with his so-called compliments.
Sergei’s eyes went dead. ‘I’ve warned you, and so’s your brother. Stop paradin’ around the pool shakin’ your stuff at the workers.’
‘What’s wrong with them looking?’ Ina argued. ‘They can look, but they can’t touch.’
Sergei grabbed a fistful of her hair, causing her to cry out in pain. ‘I look. I touch,’ he spat. ‘You stay in the goddamn house when I tell you. Got it?’
* * *
‘What’s that leafy shit your guys chew on all the time?’ Sergei wondered.
Cruz shrugged, a cigarette hanging precariously from his bottom lip. ‘Khat. It’s a stimulant — calms ’em, keeps ’em alert an’ happy.’
‘You want ’em calm? Happy?’ Sergei snorted his disgust. ‘What th’ fuck?’
‘I want ’em ready t’do anything I tell ’em to do,’ Cruz replied, taking a long drag on his cigarette, his small eyes ever-watchful.
‘They’re dangerous men — stupid an’ reckless as shit,’ Cruz continued, blowing out a stream of smoke. ‘That’s th’way they get the job done.’
‘Should hope so,’ Sergei grumbled, the nerve in his left cheek starting to twitch. ‘This deal is costing.’
‘You’ll get it back an’ plenty more when we go for the ransom,’ Cruz assured him.
‘I fuckin’ expect so.’
‘Here’s the deal with my men,’ Cruz said, taking another long drag on his cigarette. ‘They’re driven by the money — it turns ’em into heroes when they take home the loot.’
‘Fuckin’ heroes?’ Sergei jeered.
‘You got it,’ Cruz replied, stamping his cigarette underfoot. ‘An’ believe me, in the shithouse towns they come from they are the fuckin’ heroes, with a coupla pretty wives, a fancy car, an’ as many kids as they wanna have.’
‘You got a wife?’ Sergei asked, thinking that he didn’t know much about Cruz’s personal life.
‘Who’s dumb enough to buy the cow when y’can suck the juicy putas.’ Cruz chuckled. ‘An’ Somalian putas,’ — he made a wicked smacking noise with his mouth — ‘beauties, an’ grateful.’
Sergei liked the sound of that, although he was well aware that you took your life in your hands if you visited Somalia. It was one of the most dangerous countries in the world, lawless, with a barely functioning government. The kidnapping of foreigners was a national pastime.
‘My men are scared of nothin’ ’cept hunger,’ Cruz announced. ‘That’s what makes ’em so fearless an’ strong.’
‘You really fell into it, didn’t you?’ Sergei commented.
‘You bet your ass,’ Cruz bragged. ‘Me — I live like a fuckin’ king. Got in at the right time with the right connections. I’m the only foreigner they trust. An’ as long as I keep makin’ ’em money, they’re gonna keep on trustin’ me.’
Sergei nodded again. He understood.
The evening plan was a dinner on another larger island, and this time Aleksandr expected everyone to attend. Instructions were to meet on the deck by the tenders at 7 p.m.
Bianca returned to the master suite and gave Aleksandr the silent treatment as she sat in front of the bedroom mirror braiding her long dark hair while wearing nothing more than a sexy leopard-print thong. She was well aware that seeing her naked always turned him on. He had a thing for her tits, so small and perfect. She’d already decided that tonight he wasn’t getting anything sexual, not until he apologized. Sex was definitely off the menu.
Aleksandr needed to realize that she wasn’t just another pretty face he could boss around. She was Bianca. She was a super-star, and he’d better get that in his head.
* * *
Aleksandr had no desire to continue their argument, such as it was, although he was still determined to hold his ground as far as Xuan was concerned. Bianca could sit in front of the mirror half-naked for as long as she wanted, he wasn’t about to touch her until she learned that she could not tell him what to do or who to talk to. He considered it outrageous that she thought she could, and he wasn’t accepting it. Bianca had a spoiled streak, and it was his job to make her see that she could not exhibit that kind of attitude with him.
He was the boss, something she still had to get used to.
* * *
‘What an adventure!’ Ashley exclaimed, getting ready for the evening’s activities.
Taye nodded his agreement. Sex with his wife on a daily basis was a hell of a lot more than he’d expected. As far as he was concerned, they could stay on the yacht for a couple more months. No problem.
‘Do you like these earrings?’ Ashley asked, holding up a pair of diamond-studded hoops to her earlobes.
‘Love ’em,’ Taye replied, thinking he’d love them even more when he got her naked later.
Ashley put on the earrings. She was busy thinking about Cliff Baxter. She was especially excited as Cliff had been extremely friendly at lunch, and now she was quite sure that he fancied her. Cliff Baxter had what her mum would call ‘bedroom eyes’, and those eyes had been all over her.
She fantasized about what she would do if he came onto her.
Well, she wouldn’t turn him down, that was for sure. And as far as Taye was concerned, it would be payback time for when he’d screwed that page three slag.
Careful of what you do in life, Ashley thought. ’Cause one day it can come back and bite you firmly on the bum.
Ah yes, Ashley’s fantasies were in full bloom.
* * *
A feeling of helplessness overcame Sierra as she sat in their stateroom listening to Hammond drone on about exactly how he would deal with Flynn if she ever dared to talk to him again, or mention the word ‘divorce’.
‘You do know that I can have him killed any way I want,’ Hammond crowed, sweat beading his forehead. ‘Skinned alive. Shot in the head. Blown up in a car. And I might even give you the pleasure of choosing his fate, my dear wife — now wouldn’t that be an interesting decision for you to make?’
This torrent of threats had been going on for some time and she didn’t know what to do. Was Hammond completely psychotic? Had he lost his mind? Or could he actually arrange to have those threats carried out?
Was it possible?
Anything was possible. This was exactly how he’d kept her tied to him all these years. Threats against her personally. Threats against her family. But Flynn’s name had never entered into the equation, and once more it all seemed so horribly real.
‘Why are you doing this?’ she managed.
‘Why am I doing this? Hammond replied, simmering with fury. ‘Why am I doing this?’ he repeated, his bland features contorting into an angry mask. ‘You are the one who is doing this to us. You are the one who is determined to end my political career.’
‘No, I’m not,’ she objected, swallowing hard, holding back tears because she felt so helpless against his threats. Helpless and alone. She should’ve known there was no way out.
‘Save me the whining,’ Hammond said harshly. ‘We are going to the island for dinner with our gracious host, and it would be nice if you could behave like a loving wife for once. These people are my future, so try to remember that. Now get dressed. I do not care to keep anyone waiting.’
* * *
Lori luxuriated under the warm shower, savouring every delicious moment of Cliff’s lovemaking. What a changed man! What an unexpected delight.
Cliff had showered first and gone to one of the upper decks for a drink before their island visit. This time their trip to the island would be at night, so Lori wasn’t quite sure how to dress. Should she take her bikini? Would there be midnight swimming in the ocean? Maybe even skinny-dipping?
She was exhilarated. How about Mrs Cliff Baxter? Could that elusive title possibly be in her future?
Do not get carried away, she warned herself. One session of cunnilingus does not a marriage make.
Although things were definitely heading in the right direction.
Mrs Cliff Baxter.
Who knew what the future held?
* * *
‘Do I have to go?’ Jeromy groaned like a petulant child.
‘Please yourself,’ Luca responded, keeping his tone noncommittal as he selected a sexy black frilled shirt from the closet. As each day passed he was getting more and more fed up with Jeromy and his condescending attitude. It seemed that nothing and no one pleased him. It was quite obvious that Jeromy was not the centre of attention, which pissed him off. Jeromy was used to holding court, and on this trip there was no court for him to hold.
‘Don’t you want me to go?’ Jeromy asked, trying to manipulate Luca into begging for his presence.
Luca was having none of it. After this trip was over he’d definitely decided to ease Jeromy out of his life.
Jeromy was giving him an expectant look.
Luca shrugged as he put on the shirt. ‘Like I said — do what you want.’
‘I want you to tell me what to do,’ Jeromy replied, going for the subservient role, which didn’t suit him at all. There was a long silent beat, and then realizing that Luca was not about to beg him, he added a reluctant, ‘All right, I’ll come.’
Luca would have preferred it if Jeromy had opted to stay on the yacht, but it was not to be. He pulled on a pair of white pants, added a narrow black crocodile belt, and headed for the door. ‘See you upstairs,’ he said, and exited fast, wondering how he was going to manage another few days of Jeromy’s company.
In retrospect he realized that he should’ve invited Suga and Luca junior on this trip with him. They would’ve loved it, and everyone would’ve loved them.
Too bad and too late. He was stuck with Jeromy.
* * *
Cliff Baxter was already on the upper deck when Luca appeared. Cliff was sipping a martini and looking very suave in a long-sleeved charcoal T-shirt and matching linen pants, his dark hair slicked back.
Idly Luca wondered if the movie star had ever taken a walk on the wild side — there were always rumours — or did just women do it for him?
‘Hey,’ Cliff said, greeting him with a smile.
‘What’s goin’ on?’ Luca responded.
‘Don’t know about you,’ Cliff said, ‘but I think I just experienced one of the best days of my life.’
‘That’s sayin’ something, comin’ from you,’ Luca remarked.
‘Yeah,’ Cliff said. ‘I came to the conclusion that Lori is a keeper.’
‘And you didn’t know that before?’ Luca asked curiously.
‘Outside influences,’ Cliff said vaguely.
‘I get it,’ Luca said. ‘Shouldn’t listen to the chorus. When I came out, none of my advisers wanted me to do it. “You’ll lose all your fans,” they warned me. Hey, you know what? I gained fans. So I did what I wanted, an’ it all worked out.’