MY FIRST PRESS CONFERENCE is a nightmare. We’re talking a monstrous gathering at the old Opera House that traps me between other reporters, more experienced than me, and more ferocious than my ribs can take. Their jabs to my sides are merciless as they battle for the best spots and best visibility to be picked for questions, but I’ll be damned if I give in.
“Move out of the way, blondie,” a guy blurts as he shoves me.
Gripping my overlarge smart phone to my chest with one hand, I hold on tightly to the rail in front of me with the other. Keeping a spot in the first row is always a struggle, my rather fragile frame suffers, my hair is electrified like a white-blond version of Jackson 5, but fuck it.
Hang in there, Juliet Jochs. For the prize.
My prize, my target, my beacon is Radek Basarab, a prince from the Carpathians. Though I haven’t seen him in person yet, I know all there is to know about the scrap of public persona he maintains. In short, he’s young, eccentric, and so immensely rich that he can’t be clean. Where he comes from, clean businessmen don’t make it like he did. In only a few years he increased his family’s inheritance by no less than fifty percent.
“Ladies and Gents, I give you prince Radek Basarab, our patron and benefactor,” the master of ceremonies finally announces, rubbing his piggy hands together. His lips draw in an ass-kissing smile, while his eyes turn to the spot where Prince Radek is expected to appear.
The commotion stills for a few blessed moments that allow me to fill my ribcage with air. Clapping of hands announces the prince is close. I look to the side to watch him as he walks up the stairs onto the stage, his shadow licking the velvet curtain as he moves flowingly towards the master of ceremonies.
There are few pictures of him on the web, none of them clearly focused, but enough for me to recognize him. I expected the tall, princely frame in a dark suit, but I didn’t expect the striking beauty of his face—I’m not the only one to notice it; there are whispers everywhere. Must be the contrast between his ivory-white skin and his lips like dark blood that has this knock-back effect. His face is too pretty for a guy, and sure as hell too young for his notorious money-making skills.
After the master of ceremonies thanks him with heavens and earth for buying the old Opera House and saving it from being torn down and transformed into yet another mall, Radek takes the mike.
“It’s an honor to become the owner of this magnificent symbol of your history.” His voice is musical, hypnotically pleasant. That, paired with his looks, distracts me from what he says next, but I snap right back to myself the moment questions are announced.
My arm shoots up into the air at once with all the others but, no matter how hard I try, the master of ceremonies doesn’t pick me.
Of course he doesn’t. I’m a new reporter, and young ones are usually too ambitious for their own good. At least that’s what I heard him say before the auction.
No doubt, the master of ceremonies knows I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room. Is Radek Basarab supporting corrupt officials in his country? Has he helped boycott all attempts of building infrastructure in order to block foreign investment? Who is he bribing in order to get his hands on the most valuable pieces of real estate in his country and beyond, and what is his ultimate purpose for amassing properties all over Europe? He usually keeps his business shrouded in mystery, but the old Opera House is too much of a national gem, so it proved impossible to keep the transaction behind closed doors.
Hell, now that I see his face clearly, even his beauty is freaking suspicious about him.
Only inquiries about renovation make it to the stage, about other properties the prince intends to acquire, but then there’s a question about his love life. The prince is very private about it, but he gives the brunette who asked a seductive smile.
“Sadly, I haven’t met the love of my life yet,” he says in his musical voice that makes the brunette blush. “But I sure hope Cupid takes his aim on me soon.”
The brunette isn’t the only one who sighs like a hopeful idiot upon his answer. This beautiful bastard has women at his feet, and he sure as hell knows it. He plays on it, seducing them, depleting them of attention, admiration, adoration, sex, then throwing them away like broken shells.
“Maybe Cupid’s arrows just splinter against your steely heart,” I call out on an impulse. All heads turn to me, including Prince Radek’s. Eat this, pretty bastard. “Considering your looks and wealth, you must be spoiled for choice. I’m surprised you haven’t found someone to your liking yet. Unless you think none of your admirers is good enough for you.” I shrug. “Just sayin’.”
Prince Radek’s eyes lock on me. I can’t see his eye color from here, but from the few pictures on the web I know his irises are turbid blue, like murky water, impossible to see through. But one thing is crystal clear—behind them lies a poisonous snake.
“You’re prejudiced, Miss Jochs,” he muses, tilting his head to the side and narrowing his eyes. Startled, I glance from him to my nametag, then back again. Wow, what an eyesight.
“I don’t get around that much. Part of my work requires solitude, part of it bleak attorney offices and long negotiations, rarely ballrooms and select social circles, as you might imagine. I don’t actually meet so many women.”
He’s lying. He must be. But I just can’t open my mouth to speak again, to challenge him further. His porcelain face compels you to stare. His skin stretches young and flawless over a masculine bone structure, his lips blood red and carnal. The more I look at him, the less I’m able to look away, and his feline smile tells me he’s used to that. The guy’s a born seducer, a magnificent beast that breaks hearts for the fun of it.
His attention leaves me shortly after our exchange, but he glances at me every now and again. Before he leaves, followed by his bodyguards, I manage to snap a few pictures of him with my smartphone. I check their quality a few times, delete the bleary ones, and keep two that Herald, my boss and crush, should be happy with. He’ll be so proud of me when he sees my interaction with the shadow prince all over national press tomorrow morning.
I WAKE UP IN THE MIDDLE of the night from headlights flashing between the slats of my blinds. I glance at the electronic clock on my side-table. It shows a glowing red two a.m. that hurts my eyes.
My tongue sticking to my palate, I step into my slippers and drag myself to the kitchenette for water when I notice my smartphone blinking a weird violet. I frown at it with the water still in my hand, struggling to understand. It usually blinks green when the battery is full, red when it’s almost empty, never violet. Confused, I pick it up, punch in the code, and swipe. Then I drop it and the water like they burn. The glass smashes on the floor, but the phone remains intact after it hits the counter.
I analyzed and overanalyzed the pictures I took of Radek Basarab after the conference, and I’m pretty damn sure he wasn’t looking my way in either of them. I’m also sure the last thing I did before I put away my phone was NOT looking at his picture, so why does the screen light up to it? And why is he looking straight back at me, like he knows what I’m doing, when I know for a fact I photographed the side of his face TWICE?
The blue in his eyes seems strange, too. Frowning, I look closer. No, the blue isn’t strange. His eyeballs seem rolled backwards, revealing the whites, his skin pale, a ghost staring back at me. His blood red lips go pale as death, and a grin begins to stretch along his face slowly, the skin cracking.
I jolt backwards, knocking down the stool behind me. On the kitchenette counter, the screen goes dark. I don’t feel safe enough to fall asleep again, yet by the time dawn begins rippling along the horizon I’ve formed a reasonable theory in my head—Radek Basarab is a powerful man who can pay for manipulating technology. He must have had some tech wizard hack into my phone from some basement, and scare me witless as punishment for making pretty boy look bad all over national press. The more I think about it, the more my ego swells. One way or the other, the prince has taken serious notice of me.