There was no denying Briony’s beauty. Topless and in the throes of passion, eyes closed and parted lips emitting excited little moans as she neared orgasm, she was, probably, the sexiest thing Victor Melek was ever likely to see. His car bounced as she rose and fell with enthusiastic sensuality on the reclined seat, a fabulously skilled and urgent lover. Victor should have appreciated his much admired luck in possessing such a girlfriend—if only it had been him she was fucking in his car.
When he’d approached the gently rocking limousine in the private car park, he’d been conscious, mainly, of curiosity. He hadn’t even known what he’d do when he got there, although he was aware one of the occupants had to be either Briony or Rob, his chauffeur. Had he known it would be both? He didn’t seem to be surprised; perhaps he’d caught too many of Briony’s appreciative glances at the handsome driver. What did surprise him was how little he cared.
Unseen, he turned and walked away to the elevator that took him up to his city penthouse apartment. Perhaps he was numb. Perhaps he’d grown to care so much for money and the trappings that went with success that he couldn’t feel anymore.
But now you can get rid of her, a tiny voice whispered in his mind. And that felt rather like relief.
It doesn’t really make any difference, does it? the cynical part of him acknowledged. Truth be told, he’d never imagined she was faithful to him. So Briony liked a little rough on the side. He was a man who liked variety himself. Part of Briony’s attraction had always been that she didn’t cling. They were suited. A soulless couple…
Where had that thought come from? He was a self-made billionaire; he should be soulless by now. But Briony was a writer. Not that he cared for her books—they seemed to be rather silly romances—but shouldn’t there be genuine emotion in her to write them? Maybe she had too much emotion for one soulless man. And yet she was the one who wanted to get married.
Emerging from the elevator into his own apartment, already decorated to Briony’s specification for the New Year’s party where they had planned to announce their engagement at midnight, he supposed they might as well go ahead with it. They could be as happy as anyone else, or at least as comfortable. An open marriage with a beautiful trophy wife. Who wouldn’t envy him that?
His lip curled with a distaste he couldn’t quite understand. He walked through to the bedroom, already loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt. For a moment, he was distracted by the velvet-lined case lying on his huge, round bed. He paused, then reached down and opened the case, sinking onto the bed to admire the contents.
Inside the case lay six small, exquisite portraits by the sixteenth-century English miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard. They were a fantastic find to add to his collection, which, as everyone knew, was kept securely in his permanently staffed mansion in the country. He’d only just bought these ones today from another collector, James Shaw, who’d fallen on hard times. Victor hadn’t needed the experts to confirm they were genuine. He’d known just by looking, just by touching.
One by one, he took them out of the case and arranged them as Shaw had shown him. Oval-shaped portraits, they were set in gold and intended as pendants. Individually, they were beautiful pieces of exquisite expression. But together, arranged properly, they formed a family portrait, with the parents smiling at each other, the mother reaching down towards her children, who gazed back up at their parents or at each other with varying degrees of mischief, affection, or impatience at being kept still. Something about the Elizabethan family had caught and held Victor’s attention; he could almost feel the rough and tumble, the everyday and yet very real affection that bound these long-dead people.
When he heard the elevator descend again, he put the miniatures back in their case, closed it, and shoved it under the bed. They might have been priceless, but no one except Shaw knew he had them. He wasn’t worried about their security in the apartment, in his locked bedroom, during a party.
Discovering he didn’t actually want to look at Briony when she breezed into the bedroom to shower and change, he walked to the French window and opened it to gaze out across the twinkling lights of the city. The December cold blasted him, but he rather liked that. It reminded him he was alive. Much of the city was still white from the last snowfall. It lay on the more distant roofs and on the parks and trees far below. Cars still ploughed their way through it, or simply lifted off and travelled above it in one of the three vertical lanes assigned. For Victor, the wonder, the triumph of gazing down on the great city he’d conquered, financially speaking, from his position of power and security up here, had long faded. He couldn’t get it back and wasn’t sure he wanted to. What the hell was so great about making money? Apart from allowing him to indulge his taste for art.
Smiling cynically, he raised his gaze from the streets below and blinked in surprise.
Across the narrow balcony, a large black bird perched on the railing, gazing at him.
“Hello, little raven,” he said, amused. “What are you doing out this late?” Perhaps its wing was damaged, or it was sick, although its eyes looked bright enough to Victor. “Looking for the last of the Christmas cheer? Or come to celebrate the New Year?”
Not surprisingly, the raven didn’t reply, but it turned its head on one side, as though listening. Its eyes remained locked to his, quite without fear.
“In just a couple of hours, it will be 2046,” Victor informed it. “New year, new start. So they say. In fact, it’s a load of bull, wouldn’t you agree?”
The raven lifted one leg and shook it. Victor smiled at it. “Well, your leg isn’t broken. What’s the matter? Are you hungry?” His fingers curled around the wrapped sugar lumps he must have absently pocketed during his last meeting of the day. He tweaked the paper off them and drew them from his pocket before he stepped outside and dropped the sugar lumps so that they rolled nearer the bird.
Although its wings fluttered, it didn’t immediately take flight. It looked down at the sugar, then back up to Victor. He could almost have imagined he’d surprised it. Its head dipped, then it spread its wings, dropped off the railing on the far side, and flew away into the cold night.
Victor, hearing his name called by the woman he proposed to marry, knew a twinge of envy.
The raven flew around the building for a few moments, just to be sure he wasn’t still watching her; but when she glanced next at the window, it was closed and the gorgeous man had vanished.
He’d made her heart beat faster just by looking at her. She didn’t know why. Oh, he was handsome, well-groomed, well dressed apart from a missing shirt button, and pleasingly fit. But thousands of men looked good in that way. It might have been the sudden hint of vulnerability around his mouth when he’d seen her sitting on his balcony, or the faint softening of his hard, almost dead eyes. Discontented, unhappy eyes.
Poor little rich boy, she mocked him to herself as she flew down to the slushy street and found Johnny’s car. He opened the passenger door as she flapped her wings, and she hopped inside, folding her wings and thinking herself back into human form.
Johnny, who was used to her, passed her a blanket. “Well?”
“He’s got them in a case shoved under the bed,” Raven said curtly, swinging the blanket around her shoulders. It was damned cold without the protection of feathers. “Shouldn’t be a problem. Who is he anyway?”
“Victor Melek?” Johnny shrugged. “CEO of Melek Enterprises. He makes in one hour what it would take us years to steal. Several good years. ”
“He seemed to like the little pictures,” she observed, keeping her voice neutral.
Johnny glanced at her. “So he should. They cost him enough.” He rubbed his hands together and placed them on the steering wheel. “We should clean up tonight, Raven! Get the pictures and then anything else we find, we keep.” He grinned wolfishly. “Put on your glad rags—it’s party time.”