Eighteen years later
It’s her parents’ funeral, but she isn’t crying.
The girl in the footage is a petite, pretty blonde of around twenty in a black dress and blazer and a broad-brimmed hat. She’s standing next to the priest while a stream of people shake her hand. I search their faces, trying to pick out any lawyers or investment managers among the mourners.
She’s got money somewhere and we’re going to fucking find it, says the email from my brother, Damir. You know all the money people in this city. Look at their faces. Who’s helping the little bitch? Once we know who they are we can sort them out.
The mourners dwindle to nothing and the priest goes into the church. I didn’t see anyone we need to “sort out”. I go to close and delete the video but see that Miss Alders hasn’t followed the priest inside. She takes a long, pensive look around the churchyard, and I notice her fingers are fiddling nervously with her bracelet. My mother used to do the same thing shortly before my father was due to arrive home.
“Are you all right, Mama?”
“What? Oh, I’m fine, Misha. Go and play, and keep out of your father’s way.”
I sit back in my chair. It’s a gray, still day in London and I glance at the Ravnikar Enterprises skyscraper a few blocks away where Damir works. I’m part of the company but I like my space, so I’ve rented my own office on the thirty-ninth floor of a different building. The less I have to do with Damir—with anyone—the happier I am.
In the footage, Miss Alders firms her lips, ready to go into the church. Then she freezes, her eyes going wide like a startled fawn’s. A man steps into the shot and she presses her back against the church in fear.
I lean forward to get a better look at the screen. It’s Damir, his broad back and tall figure almost obliterating my view of this small young woman. What the hell is he doing there? Her gaze flickers past him, as if she’s yearning to escape.
Intent on the footage, I don’t notice that my PA is peering over my shoulder.
“Hey, look. It’s the dead girl.”
I slam my thumb on the spacebar to pause the video and glare up at Bethany. “What is it?”
She tosses a file onto my desk and shrugs. “Here’s the report thing you need for that meeting or whatever.”
My eyes sweep disapprovingly over her unprofessional attire. Today it’s an off-the-shoulder blouse showing a great deal of creamy cleavage and a tight lace pencil skirt. Her wild black curls are swept to one side and tumble down her arm.
“Thank you. That will be all,” I say tightly, keen to get back to the footage. Damir is frozen in the act of looming over Miss Alders and my every nerve is on edge.
But Bethany folds her arms and nods at the screen. “I know Ciara.”
“We took classes together until I quit last semester.” Bethany gives me a fake sycophantic smile. “In order to devote more time to you, sir.”
“You’d be better off getting an education,” I mutter, checking the messages on my phone in an effort to quell the desire to shout at Bethany to get out. What’s Damir playing at? Why is he so hung up on this girl? Why do I want to reach into the screen and pull him away from her?
Bethany casts her eyes to the heavens. “Education? Please. I’m going to date a series of rich men, find the most corrupt one to marry, and then when he’s sent to prison for fifteen to twenty-five years I’ll console myself by spending all his money.” She shrugs a bare shoulder. “The ideal life.”
People aren’t sent to prison around here; we’re far too wealthy for that. But if she wants to marry a corrupt man then she certainly has her pick at Ravnikar Enterprises, assuming she can turn a blind eye to the things that go on around here. It gets easier. The trick is to think of the money.
I put down my phone and look at the screen. At Miss Alders’ terrified eyes. A memory comes to me, of seeing my father standing over my mother in the same manner. Damir looks so much like him these days.
Anger surges through me. Why did he make me look at her face? He knows I don’t like to get personally involved. Numbers. Databases. Spreadsheets. The only people I like are theoretical ones on the other side of a business portfolio.
The words slip out of my mouth before I can stop myself. “What’s she like?” I suppose I’m hoping she’s a nasty, greedy little thing like her father so I don’t feel guilty when I wash my hands of her in thirty seconds’ time.
Bethany considers this. “Smart. People like her. I think she was top in both the classes we had together.”
Of course she’s smart and likeable and gets good grades. Of course she is.
I tap my fingers on my desk, trying to think. “Three years ago, I introduced Miss Alders’ father to Damir and persuaded him that taking on our Diamond Property Developments scheme was an excellent opportunity for him. He then stole money from us, and when he realized he’d been caught he fled with his wife rather than face Damir. Their plane went down in the Ukraine two weeks ago.”
I remember how Damir had laughed when we got the news, like it was the best joke he’d heard in his whole life. Then the laughter had stopped, and cold steel returned to his eyes. “They shouldn’t have left their daughter behind. She’ll wish she’d died with her parents by the time I’m finished with her.”
Damir has managed to recover nearly all of the seventeen million pounds that Mr. Alders embezzled from us via our lawyers, all but four hundred and fifty thousand of it. Maybe Mr. Alders used it for bribes. Maybe he had a debt to pay off. Maybe he liked high-class hookers. Who knows. But I’ve been through the accounts and the money’s gone. I want to leave it at that but Damir isn’t satisfied.
In the frozen video footage Miss Alders’ eyes are sparkling with fear as she looks up at Damir.
“Misha, I told you to go to bed. It’s all right, your father and I were just talking.”
I point at the screen. “If it wasn’t for me Miss Alders’ parents would both be alive, and Damir wouldn’t be out for her blood.”
Bethany puts a hand over her heart and stares wide-eyed at my chest. “Oh, sir, is that—what’s that on you?”
I glance down at my suit, wondering if I spilled salad dressing on myself at lunch.
She peers closer, frowning intently. “Is that—a conscience?”
I level a dry look at her. If it wasn’t near-impossible to find a PA who can put up with my brother and his dangerous associates, who knows how to keep her mouth shut about the things she overhears, and can keep a meeting diary in order I’d fire Bethany.
“Thank you, you can go now.”
She ignores me. “I don’t know why her dead parents should matter to you. You didn’t make Ciara’s dumbass father double-cross Mr. Ravnikar.”
True. But for some reason that doesn’t make me feel any better.
I recall the last line of Damir’s email. I’ll get my half a mill from her if I have to wring it out of her fucking corpse.
I know my brother better than anyone else in the world. He means everything he says. Miss Alders will have to find some way to raise half a million pounds, money that won’t make any difference to our business, but will probably break her. I suspect that’s the point: it’s not the money Damir wants. It’s revenge on the last living member of the Alders family.
Our servers are secure. There’s no way to trace that this video was sent to me. I can delete it now and I’ll never be held accountable for what happens to Miss Alders, even if her body turns up face-down in the Thames.
But the gods must be pissing on my grave today because I point at the screen and say to Bethany, “Miss Alders’ debt. I can cover it easily but getting the money from my accounts into hers so she can give it to Damir is a problem. How do I do it?”
Bethany shrugs. “How should I know? I’m not one of your dodgy accountants. Go ask them.”
“The accountants who all report to my brother? What an enlightened idea. I need to give her half a million pounds, but she can’t know who I am or where the money has come from. I don’t trust her to not tell Damir who helped her.”
Or break under his questioning.
My PA gives me a baffled look. “Why do you want to give her money?”
“That’s none of your business,” I say coldly. If I do nothing and something happens to Miss Alders it will be one stone too many laying heavy on my conscience. I just want to get on with my work but instead I’m suddenly burdened with integrity I didn’t fucking ask for.
She thinks for a moment and then shakes her head. “If you’ve gone soft on her why don’t you just tell Damir you’ll cover her debt?”
“Do you really think my brother will allow me to use my money, that he likes to tell me is his money because I work for him, to pay a revenge debt?”
Bethany wrinkles her nose. “Oh yeah. Your brother is an asshole. I forgot.”
An asshole. Assholes glass you in the pub. Key your car. Cut you off on the motorway. My brother is enriched uranium-level psychopath. “There aren’t many ways that a student stumbles over half a million pounds.”
“Let her work it off on the pole, then.”
In one of Damir’s own strip clubs, she means. I believe that’s his plan for her, watching her slave away in one of his seedy strip joints for a decade until he’s ruined her life. They’re popular clubs and strippers who work there of their own free will probably clean up. But a stripper forced into it and wearing her vulnerability night after night for all to see? She’d be bullied by the girls and patrons alike and taken advantage of night after night until she’s a hollow shell of self-disgust.
“Look on the bright side, sir. Once she’s a stripper you can go and get as many lap dances from her as you like.”
I flick my gaze up at her. “I wish I could replace you.”
“But you can’t, because no one but me can put up with your surly ass. Can I have an advance? One that doesn’t actually come out of my next pay check?”
Bethany can have anything she wants if she can make Miss Alders go away. And she needs to go away, fast. I’ve wasted enough time thinking about her. “Come up with a way to solve this problem and you can have this month’s pay check twice over.”
She considers this for a moment, and then perches on the edge of my desk and says in a breathy voice, “Why don’t you be her daddy?”
“Her what?” I deadpan.
“Her daddy. You know, her sugar daddy. You give her a fat allowance in exchange for a couple of dates a week and a blow job when you’re feeling lonely. I don’t imagine anyone’s sucking your dick by choice. Ciara gives the money to your brother and your newfound conscience lets you sleep at night. Problem solved.”
My expression is still baleful, but my mind is ticking over. It’s a ridiculous idea, though on the upside Damir would never suspect it and drip-feeding Miss Alders the funds rather than trying to give her a lump sum would seem less suspicious to him, as she’d pay him off bit by bit.
But I don’t know Miss Alders, I don’t want to know her, and I have no idea how I would go about getting her to agree to such a distasteful arrangement.
“One of my friends was in the sugar bowl for a while,” Bethany says, and I stare at her blankly. “That’s what sugaring is called, being in the sugar bowl. The girls are the sugar babies and the guys are the sugar daddies. It’s super popular among students, actually. Why slave for hours in a coffee shop if you can make thousands holding some flabby old guy’s hand while he pays for your expensive dinner?”
“It’s a legitimate arrangement? Young women will take money just for going out on dates?”
Bethany gives me an incredulous look. “Well, you’d get to sleep with her, too. That’s what it’s about. You do have sex don’t you, you big weirdo? Or do you, like, pay people wearing stiletto heels to step on your balls?”
“I don’t know why I’m asking you questions when I could just Google all this.”
“Because I’m better than Google.” She puts her hands together in a prayer position and wags them at me. “You tell her that you’ll give her so many thousands of pounds a month in exchange for dates, say two a week, some of which end in sex. You buy her handbags, some Italian shoes, maybe take her away for a dirty weekend or two and give her extra cash when you’ve had a particularly satisfying time. She sees you as a rich dude who wants a pretty young girl on his arm, and you get to pay off her debt.”
Bethany beams at me, proud of herself, but it seems like an awful lot of hassle just to give my brother half a million pounds that he doesn’t need. I have much, much more than that sitting in offshore accounts and despite what Damir thinks it’s my fucking money. I just want to give it to him so I can get on with my life and forget about Miss Alders. He was like this when we were children. Vindictive. Cruel. When he was six and we were still living in Slovenia, one of our nannies scolded him for stealing chocolates from her handbag and he got her fired. But it wasn’t just fired. He wasn’t satisfied until our father screamed at the poor woman in front of all the staff and then kicked her out onto the street, still weeping. Damir smiled ear to ear, watching the nanny sob as she walked away from the house. I’d never seen him so happy. That was when I realized that there was something wrong with my little brother. I didn’t do anything to stop him. That’s how I knew there was something wrong with me, too.
“Well, sir?” Bethany prompts.
Being Miss Alders’ sugar daddy is a terrible idea and I don’t like it but it’s the only one I’ve got right now. “How many thousand can I give her each month? Fifty?”
Bethany gapes at me. “Do you want her to think you’re a cannibal or you’re grooming her for some weird kink? She’ll run a mile. Ten thousand. You give her ten thousand a month, max, and slip her a few extra thousand in an envelope at the end of each date if you want to bump it up a bit.”
I groan inwardly. Ten thousand. At that rate it will take nearly four years for her to pay off the debt in full. Four years of tedious dates and pretending to be her sugar daddy. I don’t have the time.
But maybe it wouldn’t take quite so long if I came up with something better in the meantime. For now, ten thousand pounds a month would appease my brother and keep Miss Alders out of his strip club while I work on a plan to get her a bigger lump sum sooner.
“It’s a good idea, isn’t it, sir? Go on. Admit it.”
“It’s…got potential,” I concede. “But how do I enter into this sort of arrangement with Miss Alders? I don’t know her.”
Bethany flips her long hair over her shoulder and gives me a dazzling smile. “But I know her. I’ll put the idea in her head for you. Classes start tomorrow and Ciara hangs out at a café on campus before every lecture. We weren’t friends but she’s too nice not to talk to me if I sit down at her table. Let me go look up the schedule.”
She turns to leave but I catch Bethany’s wrist, pulling her back. “If you breathe a word of this to anyone you and she are both dead. You know that’s not me threatening you. That’s what Damir will do. He doesn’t want money, he wants to cause her pain, and he’ll hurt anyone who gets in the way of what he wants.”
Bethany shrugs out of my grip, and I see a flicker of fear in her eyes before she masks it with nonchalance. “Please. You think I’d go blabbing about anything I do here? I like my blood inside my veins.” Her eyes run over me. “What about you?”
I sit back in the leather chair. “What about me?”
“What will Mr. Ravnikar do to you if he finds out about this?”
Me? I’m too useful to Damir for him to hurt me. I bring in too much money. I like bringing in all that money. I like the power and influence we have in this city, however we go about getting it. “I can look after myself. Now go.”
But Bethany hesitates in the doorway, an unfamiliar expression in her eyes. “Be nice to her, okay? This is going to be weird for her, taking money from a bad-tempered old dude.”
My ego prickles at that. I’m not old, I’m forty-two. I’m fit, I don’t smoke, barely drink and I work out five times a week. I could sit in the bar of an upscale hotel and have women flock to me, and not only because they can smell money on me. Maybe I am bad-tempered, but while my brother makes an art out of being cruel and manipulative, I just simply don’t care about making people like me. I don’t need people to like me. Being liked is for thirteen-year-old girls and talk-show hosts. I make money. I am very bloody good at making money. That’s what people need from me and that’s what I provide. Money.
The more money I give Miss Alders and the less I want to see her, the happier she’ll be. “Nice to her? This isn’t a relationship, this is a financial transaction entirely for her benefit.”
Bethany snorts. “How would you know what a relationship is?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing, sir,” she calls in a sing-song voice as she saunters out. “Sounds like you’ve got everything covered. I’ll go plant the idea in your sweet little baby’s head and everything else will just take care of itself.”