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Cards of Love: The Emperor: A Dark Romance by Fawn Bailey (1)

1

The Emperor

My life had changed a lot in the past seven years.

No longer the young, foolish man I used to be, I'd found a new life in a new country, on a new continent. There was finally the chance of moving on, of getting over the deaths of most of my family. I busied myself with any task I could get my hands on, and I created a new name for myself, one that meant control and power. 

I was at the top of the food chain. I ran my own business, dealt with numbers so big most people could only dream of such riches. I was successful, yet I remained unsated. For as long as I could remember, I'd felt the deep emptiness within me like a bottomless well.

Only once had the feeling left me. Only once had I been blessed by the pleasant, serene beauty of being utterly and completely fulfilled.

Her name was Ginger. She was younger than me, much too pretty, and way too smart for her own good.

I had tried to keep her forever. I'd tethered her to me, trying to force her to stay. But our happiness didn’t last long, and soon enough, she left me to pursue bigger things.

I shouldn't have been surprised. She was a bright, shining star in my universe, and she deserved so much better than what I could offer her.

At the time, I was a broken man in love with a woman who would never want me back. I didn't realize what I had in stunning, shy little Ginger. I was too young and too fucking stupid, and I let the opportunity of a lifetime slip between my fingers.

I tried to find her plenty of times, but she'd disappeared without a trace. Not even Kain, my half-brother, could help me. She had disappeared into the wild and the world had swallowed her up, leaving me empty-handed.

Now, seven years later, I was bitter and angry because I'd let Ginger go. I had been stubborn, convincing myself she wasn't the one, telling myself I could live without her—but they were all lies I'd told myself so I could get over her.

Look how that turned out, I thought bitterly as I stood from my chair, pacing the room back and forth.

There were so many responsibilities on my shoulders, so much weight I had to carry every day, yet my mind still refused to let go of the simplest thing I had ever known: the pleasure of holding Ginger in my arms, holding her close and feeling her body tremble when it came in touch with mine.

"Emperor?"

I looked toward the voice, my hands forming fists at my sides as I saw the girl before me.

"Yes?" I asked, trying to keep my voice patient and polite.

But it was fucking hard, especially with Astor around.

I'd had her before. Too many times to count. 

Days turned into weeks turned into months, and being without Ginger had made me a bitter old man. Not even a year after she left me, after everything we'd been through together, my hair went gray. I watched strand by strand turn into icy silver locks, but I refused to chop it all off. Instead, I grew a beard to match the silver hair. I knew what I looked like now. I looked like a sad old guy pining after a lost love he would never have back. Sometimes, the knowledge of that was too much to handle, the nights too lonely, my bed too cold.

On one of those nights, I'd run into Astor.

New in town, innocent, but with a sharp tongue and more than ready to take care of herself, Astor was a beauty I had attempted to resist for a very long time. I'd employed her instead.

I'd always had a fucking weak spot for helpless little girls like her. She was too young to be on her own, but she had nobody else, so I gave her a few odd jobs and a fake title, and she grew attached like I should have known she would.

She followed me around everywhere, but soon enough, it also became abundantly clear that she was a valuable asset to my business. I couldn't let her go, so I let her climb into my bed every so often, put her fingers on my cock, battling the feelings of guilt when I wished her to be Ginger instead.

Astor grew resentful of me, but she didn't hate me enough to walk away. She followed me everywhere I went, and I put up with it because she was a vital part of my business.

As I raised my eyes to hers, I noticed her gaze wasn’t filled with longing and contempt like it usually was. Instead, she was all business, giving me a quick nod to signify that the men had arrived.

I left my room in peace, following Astor to the meeting room where everything had been set up an hour earlier. The Japanese were already waiting, three men in stiff-looking designer suits with somber expressions. They bowed when I walked in, and I repeated the motion, sitting in front of them.

"So, gentlemen," I said pleasantly. "What do you have for me?"

The man in the middle pulled out a briefcase. He was wearing white gloves, and he took special care when he opened the briefcase, pulling out out a velvet pouch. 

He carefully undid the ribbon holding it together and spilled the contents of the little bag on his hand. 

Diamonds hit his palm one by one, each one bigger than the last. They were beautiful, their size unprecedented. Something you'd sooner find in a national museum than a jeweler. 

Finally the stone we'd all been waiting for fell from the bag, outshining all the others with its beauty.

It was a deep blue diamond, as rare as it was beautiful, almost blinding with the way it shined and sparkled. It took my breath away, and in that moment, I was reminded of happiness, of holding Ginger in my arms and kissing her pillowy lips. It was the reason for my obsession, the start of my fixation. It all started and began with that very diamond.

The Cursed Beauty.

"La Bellezza Maledetta," Astor whispered, and I smiled in her direction.

"It's perfect," I told the men before me. "We'll take it, and arrange for the transfer of funds to your accounts overseas right away."

I reached for the stone, but before I could take it, the man standing to the right grabbed my wrist.

Right away, my guards pulled their weapons out, and I laughed out loud. "Calm down, boys. What's this now, Shiro? I thought we had a deal."

"We do," the man replied in heavily accented English, swallowing thickly and risking a look around the room. "But… there is something else. Something we haven't told you."

"Don't tell me you're talking about the curse." I raised my eyebrows. "Surely you don't believe in such nonsense? You're a grown man, Shiro. A grown businessman, no less."

"It's true," the man on the right interrupted, his voice fierce. "I'm sorry, L'Imperatore, but it's true. The stone is cursed."

"I don't believe in such things," I told him with a smile. "I believe in cold, hard cash. In the sharpness of a diamond. In the way it looks against perfectly smooth, silky skin on a beautiful woman. I don't believe in curses, my dear men. So you might as well hand it over."

"We can accept no payment for it," Shiro said, his voice shaky. "It's part of the curse. Whoever obtains the diamond is cursed. The only way to break the curse is to give away the diamond without accepting a monetary payment for it. Or a payment of any kind, really."

"Are you serious?" I laughed, rubbing my temples. "This is the stuff of myths and legends."

"Our culture is rooted in myths and legends," Shiro informed me coolly. "These are stories our people have believed in for years. Please don't discredit them."

Sensing their discomfort, I raised my hand in the air, trying to placate the three men.

"I truly mean no disrespect. But you can't hand over a diamond valued at $3.2 million for nothing."

"Please." The man in the middle spoke up now, the one who had been silent until then.

I took a good look at him, finally giving him more attention.

He must've been younger than me, but his gaunt face and the circles under his deep-set eyes made him look much older. There was a small, silver scar running over his face, from his left temple to the right side of his jaw. He looked weathered, tired. He looked beaten.

This was a man who truly believed in the curse of the diamond before him.

"Just take it," he begged me. "We must get rid of it. The diamond… it's ruining our lives."

"It's just a stone," Astor laughed out loud. "What more could it possibly be?"

Once again, the three men turned sour, and I gave my woman a warning look. I didn't have time for this. If they wanted to give me the diamond for free, I was more than willing to take it, and I told them as much. 

"You really will?" Shiro asked doubtfully. "Despite the curse? Despite our warnings?"

I nodded, giving him a big smile.

"I'm not afraid," I said. "I watched my brother and my father die. I'm not worried of a stone with some bad luck surrounding it. No offense."

"None taken," the man on the right muttered.

The men exchanged glances before nodding at one another, pushing their chairs back from the table and standing up.

"Are we done here?" one of them asked.

"Yes," I replied. "Oh, just one more question."

They stood there stiffly, and I regarded them with a curious expression. "I thought there would be five men coming to sell the stone. The five Tanaka brothers?"

"Only three of us left," Shiro said coolly. "Two of our brothers, the twins, died on our way here."

He didn't elaborate, and I didn't ask. I offered them my condolences.

"Have you tried to sell the diamond before?" I asked just as they were making their way out of the room. "The Cursed Beauty. Is this the first time you're attempting to sell this piece?"

Shiro looked at his brothers before shaking his head, almost as a final warning to me not to accept the cursed stone.

"We tried," he told me in a low, frightened voice. "No one would take it. No one was foolish enough."

"I make my own luck," I replied pointedly. "Always have, always will. And if you're willing to leave me with a treasure—something worth so much money, curse or no curse—then I'd be a bad businessman to decline it."

They were almost out the door when the tallest of them looked over his shoulder. His eyes held a warning, one they'd told me plenty of times now, yet I still wasn't willing to listen.

"That stone will kill you," the Japanese man said. "It will be the end of you. Mark my words."

I gave him an easy smile.

"I won't let it kill me," I told him while Astor stepped behind me, her hand wrapping proprietorially around my biceps. 

She was holding the diamond in her other hand as if weighing it, admiring its beautiful shine. The three men watched in horror as she chuckled.

"Nothing can ever kill me," I added before closing the door in their faces.

The Cursed Beauty was finally mine.

So why did I still feel so empty inside?

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