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Not Just the Boss's Plaything

By:Caitlin Crews

Not Just the Boss's Plaything
Caitlin Crews

       CHAPTER ONE

TORTURE WOULD BE preferable to this.

Nikolai Korovin moved through the crowd ruthlessly, with a deep distaste    for his surroundings he made no effort to hide. The club was one of    London's sleekest and hottest, according to his assistants, and was    therefore teeming with the famous, the trendy and the stylish.

All of whom appeared to have turned up tonight. In their slick, hectic    glory, such as it was. It meant Veronika, with all her aspirations to    grandeur, couldn't be far behind.

"Fancy a drink?" a blank-eyed creature with masses of shiny black hair    and plumped-up lips lisped at him, slumping against him in a manner he    imagined was designed to entice him. It failed. "Or anything else?    Anything at all?"

Nikolai waited impatiently for her to stop that insipid giggling, to    look away from his chest and find her way to his face-and when she did,    as expected, she paled. As if she'd grabbed hold of the devil himself.

She had.

He didn't have to say a word. She dropped her hold on him immediately, and he forgot her the moment she slunk from his sight.

After a circuit or two around the loud and heaving club, his eyes moving    from one person to the next as they propped up the shiny bar or    clustered around the leather seating areas, cataloging each and    dismissing them, Nikolai stood with his back to one of the giant    speakers and simply waited. The music, if it could be called that,    blasted out a bass line he could feel reverberate low in his spine as if    he was under sustained attack by a series of concussion grenades. He    almost wished he was.

He muttered something baleful in his native Russian, but it was swept    away in the deep, hard thump and roll of that terrible bass. Torture.

Nikolai hated this place, and all the places like it he'd visited since    he'd started this tiresome little quest of his. He hated the  spectacle.   He hated the waste. Veronika, of course, would love it-that  she'd be   seen in such a place, in such company.

Veronika. His ex-wife's name slithered in his head like the snake she'd    always been, reminding him why he was subjecting himself to this.

Nikolai wanted the truth, finally. She was the one loose end he had    left, and he wanted nothing more than to cut it off, once and for all.    Then she could fall from the face of the planet for all he cared.

"I never loved you," Veronika had said, a long cigarette in her hand,    her lips painted red like blood and all of her bags already packed.    "I've never been faithful to you except by accident." Then she'd smiled,    to remind him that she'd always been the same as him, one way or    another: a weapon hidden in plain sight. "Needless to say, Stefan isn't    yours. What sane woman would have your child?"

Nikolai had eventually sobered up and understood that whatever pain he'd    felt had come from the surprise of Veronika's departure, not the    content of her farewell speech. Because he knew who he was. He knew what    he was.

And he knew her.

These days, his avaricious ex-wife's tastes ran to lavish Eurotrash    parties wherever they were thrown, from Berlin to Mauritius, and the    well-manicured, smooth-handed rich men who attended such events in    droves-but Nikolai knew she was in London now. His time in the Russian    Special Forces had taught him many things, much of which remained  etched   deep into that cold, hard stone where his heart had never been,  and   finding a woman with high ambitions and very low standards like    Veronika? Child's play.

It had taken very little effort to discover that she was shacking up    with her usual type in what amounted to a fortress in Mayfair: some    dissipated son of a too-wealthy sheikh with an extensive and deeply    bored security force, the dismantling of which would no doubt be as easy    for Nikolai as it was entertaining-but would also, regrettably, cause    an international incident.

Because Nikolai wasn't a soldier any longer. He was no longer the    Spetsnaz operative who could do whatever it took to achieve his    goals-with a deadly accuracy that had won him a healthy respect that    bordered on fear from peers and enemies alike. He'd shed those skins, if    not what lay beneath them like sinew fused to steel, seven years ago    now.                       
       
           



       

And yet because his life was nothing but an exercise in irony, he'd    since become a philanthropist, an internationally renowned wolf in the    ill-fitting clothes of a very soft, very fluffy sheep. He ran the    Korovin Foundation, the charity he and his brother, Ivan, had begun    after Ivan's retirement from Hollywood action films. Nikolai tended to    Ivan's fortune and had amassed one of his own thanks to his innate    facility with investment strategies. And he was lauded far and near as a    man of great compassion and caring, despite the obvious ruthlessness   he  did nothing to hide.

People believed what they wanted to believe. Nikolai knew that better than most.

He'd grown up hard in post-Soviet Russia, where brutal oligarchs were    thick on the ground and warlords fought over territory like starving    dogs-making him particularly good at targeting excessively wealthy men    and the corporations they loved more than their own families, then    talking them out of their money. He knew them. He understood them. They    called it a kind of magic, his ability to wrest huge donations from  the   most reluctant and wealthiest of donors, but Nikolai saw it as  simply   one more form of warfare.

And he had always been so very good at war. It was his one true art.

But his regrettably high profile these days meant he was no longer the    kind of man who could break into a sheikh's son's London stronghold and    expect that to fly beneath the radar. Billionaire philanthropists  with   celebrity brothers, it turned out, had to follow rules that  elite,   highly trained soldiers did not. They were expected to use  diplomacy and   charm.

And if such things were too much of a reach when it concerned an ex-wife    rather than a large donation, they were forced to subject themselves   to  London's gauntlet of "hot spots" and wait.

Nikolai checked an impatient sigh, ignoring the squealing trio of    underdressed teenagers who leaped up and down in front of him, their    eyes dulled with drink, drugs and their own craven self-importance.    Lights flashed frenetically, the awful music howled and he monitored the    crowd from his strategic position in the shadows of the dance floor.

He simply had to wait for Veronika to show herself, as he knew she would.

Then he would find out how much of what she'd said seven years ago had    been spite, designed to hurt him as much as possible, and how much had    been truth. Nikolai knew that on some level, he'd never wanted to  know.   If he never pressed the issue, then it was always possible that  Stefan   really was his, as Veronika had made him believe for the first  five   years of the boy's life. That somewhere out there, he had a son.  That he   had done something right, even if it was by accident.

But such fantasies made him weak, he knew, and he could no longer    tolerate it. He wanted a DNA test to prove that Stefan wasn't his. Then    he would be done with his weaknesses, once and for all.

"You need to go and fix your life," his brother, Ivan, the only person    alive that Nikolai still cared about, the only one who knew what they'd    suffered at their uncle's hands in those grim years after their  parents   had died in a factory fire, had told him just over two years  ago. Then   he'd stared at Nikolai as if he was a stranger and walked  away from  him  as if he was even less than that.

It was the last time they'd spoken in person, or about anything other than the Korovin Foundation.

Nikolai didn't blame his older brother for this betrayal. He'd watched    Ivan's slide into his inevitable madness as it happened. He knew that    Ivan was sadly deluded-blinded by sex and emotion, desperate to believe    in things that didn't exist because it was far better than the grim    alternative of reality. How could he blame Ivan for preferring the    delusion? Most people did.

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