“Just a moment, Nik,” Tamás said, holding him back by the shoulder before he could leave the restroom to face the high-powered corporate meeting ahead. Nikolai turned and lifted his hands in capitulation while trying not to swat Tamás away when he adjusted his tie.
“You’d just make a mess out of it,” Tamás explained.
“I know.” Nikolai tugged his own shirt cuffs out of the suit at least, flashing a little white. As comfortable as this one was, a tailored suit always reminded him of marriages and christenings and funerals, when things were getting formal and when he’d much rather be wearing jeans and a shirt. Vadim had taken him to his own tailor on Savile Row, a street much less impressive than its reputation. But his father did enjoy the fine things in life, and he’d definitely enjoyed dressing Nikolai “properly.”
The only slightly mortifying thing was that the tailor had thought them lovers. Maybe they’d stood too close or had shown too much affection. Vadim was still a very attractive man, and possibly looked too refined to be straight (he wasn’t), and his own suit indicated he clearly had enough money to keep a boy toy thirty years younger. Still, Nikolai had hurried to call him “Dad,” though that word was always just too demonstrative. As if speaking it referenced a past they’d never really shared, and pointing it out was trying too hard.
Tamás attracted his attention with a wave in front of his face. “You ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Nikolai adjusted his cufflink—tiger eye—and dropped his shoulders, which had crept up toward his ears from the tension. He wasn’t made for this. He was an introvert to beat all introverts, and critical presentations weren’t his thing. If Tamás’s spoken English were any better, he would have done it, but Nikolai sounded like a native, so it was his job.
They left the restroom, and the gorgeous personal assistant from earlier ushered them into a large conference room situated in the corner of the building, its two floor-to-ceiling windows displaying other skyscrapers in central Toronto. The room was empty but for the conference table and chairs and a large white board that doubled as a projection surface.
Tamás got to work setting up the laptop and projector while the PA asked them about drinks and then left to get coffee. Nikolai knew the presentation by heart; he’d written most of it, with Tamás then killing all his typos. His spoken English was awkward, but his written English was much better than Nikolai’s. Nikolai inhaled deeply and tried to get rid of the tension. It didn’t work.
“Mr. LeBeau and the rest of the board will be with you momentarily,” the PA said, setting down two cups of coffee in front of them on the table.
“Thank you.” Nikolai took a sip, but the coffee hit his roiling stomach like battery acid. He put the cup down and reached for one of the tiny water bottles standing on the table. He secured a glass, too, and poured it.
“You’ll be fine,” Tamás reassured him in Hungarian, and Nikolai nodded grimly. They should have left this stuff to the corporate finance bankers—smooth talkers, smooth dressers, and too smart for their own good. But this kind of deal called for more commitment—more honesty, maybe. Cards on the table. Was that how the corporate game was played? It had seemed like a good idea at the time. If their CEO hadn’t been tied up with meetings in Georgia, he could have done it.
Tamás pulled a pile of stapled papers from his briefcase and distributed the copies of the presentation around the room.
The door opened, and LeBeau walked in. His silver mane gave his angular, long face a leonine cast, and Nikolai had to force himself to move toward him. Biggest shareholder. Diamond, gold, silver, and copper billionaire. Nikolai had never gotten quite this close to so much money before in his life.
He shook the man’s hand when he offered it. “Mr. LeBeau. Very pleased to finally meet you. Nikolai Krasnorada. And this is my partner, Tamás Kovacs.”
Tamás shook his hand next, while LeBeau inquired after their trip and their hotel, perfectly pleasant and as if he really cared. He grabbed Nikolai’s elbow, a controlling gesture, but there was extremely little Nikolai could do about it, so he pretended he hadn’t noticed.
More men and two women entered the room. “Mr. Krasnorada, let me introduce you.” LeBeau let his elbow go and put his hand between Nikolai’s shoulder blades, steering him to the board members. He introduced them very briefly. The last one caught his eye. Mid- to late-thirties, dark hair, an easy, warm smile, and the charm of an actor. “Henri LeBeau, my younger brother’s son. Only one of the lot who has a head for business.”
Henri’s smile wavered, and Nikolai pretended he hadn’t noticed the jab. He didn’t like hearing it, and he shouldn’t have had to, by all rights. But family always made him tetchy, too.
“Pleased to meet you,” Nikolai said.
Henri shook his head and smiled at him. “Great to meet you.” His eyes were a mellow golden-brown, framed by features that struck him as not entirely British or French, but Nikolai couldn’t place him. Nikolai inhaled deeply, kept smiling, hoping all of this would soon be over and they could fly back to Armenia.
Finally, introductions made, everybody settled and Nikolai and Tamás withdrew to their laptop. A kind soul dimmed the light, and Nikolai glanced over at the PA, who smiled warmly at him from the door. If even the PA was encouraging him, he had to be giving off that anxious vibe he’d been trying so hard to contain. He reached up to pull at the tie, but stopped himself just in time and folded his hands in front of him so they couldn’t get into any trouble.
“Right. Thanks for coming and giving us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and our company.” That, at least, he’d done before. Of course, the board knew damn well who he was and what Cybele Exploration did. Besides, their names and Cybele’s logo of two lions were on the first page of his presentation.
He took a deep breath and walked them through the investment case. The drill pattern, the lab results, the amount of gold they’d secured, the backing from the Armenian government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Cybele Exploration wasn’t completely a small fish anymore; they’d gone public a year ago and had used the money they’d collected to amply finance their drilling program. They had a fair idea of how much gold was in their exploration area, and there might very well be more, as the resource was still wide open in all directions. Every drill to find the borders of the deposit had only yielded further positive results. They were sitting on an enormous potential treasure, and now was the time to get some help on board. Nobody was better than LeBeau Mining.
After the introduction, Nikolai’s throat loosened up, his voice became steadier, and he began to enjoy it.
I know nothing about mining, but you make it sound interesting, Vadim had said one evening, when they’d sat together and he’d asked what exactly his son was doing these days. And that from a man who’d spent thirty years of his life on one battlefield or another.
Tamás always clicked on the next page of the PowerPoint presentation when Nikolai finished explaining the current slide, and that silent reliability was more than welcome right now. They were a great team. All of Cybele’s inner circle were. Ruslan liked to call them his “Attis boys.” One of those jokes you made when you were too saturated with mythological references.
Nikolai finished the presentation and pulled at the knot of his tie before he could stop himself. He balled his hands into fists at his sides and asked, “Any questions?” like Presentations Etiquette 101 demanded.
The board members all glanced at the elder LeBeau, who had pushed back from the table, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. By contrast, Henri was leaning forward with his forearms on the table, hands folded in front of him.
“Thank you, Mr. Krasnorada,” LeBeau finally said. “You’ve made your case.”
No questions? That couldn’t be good. Nikolai exchanged glances with Tamás.
“Who are you seeing next?” LeBeau asked.
Nikolai glanced back quickly at LeBeau, frowned. “I’m not.”
“You’ve come all the way to Toronto to just make one case?”
Nikolai shrugged. “Yes. Our adviser said that LBM would be the best partner for this enterprise, so we approached you.” They probably should not have put it all on one card. But the possibility that they might get turned down had never really occurred to him. He inhaled deeply, caught Henri’s expression—a crooked smile like a conspirator’s.
“Hmm, that is interesting. You’re either somewhat innocent, Mr. Krasnorada, or a great deal more genuine than will serve you in the cutthroat corporate world,” LeBeau said.
“To be perfectly honest with you, sir, I didn’t expect to walk into a den of cutthroats and thieves, or I would have brought my sword.”
LeBeau stared at him blankly for a moment, and tension descended on the room. Then Henri chuckled. “A gold digger with a sword, now there’s an image.”
LeBeau smirked, then got up and came around the conference table, hand outstretched. Nikolai shook it, still not sure where he stood with this man. Again, LeBeau grabbed his elbow as he shook his hand. “How long are you going to be in Toronto, Nikolai?”
Oh, it was Nikolai now?
“I’m flying back early on Tuesday.”
“That gives you at least three and a half days to do some sightseeing. Are you already booked for Monday evening?”
“No, sir, I’m free.”
“Good. We should get together and have another chat. By then, I’ll have some questions for you. I like to think these things through.” He tapped his temple. “The old cogs don’t spin as fast anymore.”
“I respectfully disbelieve you, sir.”
LeBeau grinned and looked at Henri, who’d just stepped to his side. “Maybe my nephew can show you the city. Since he’ll take over for me one day.”
Henri chuckled. “I think I can pick my own playmates, Uncle. I’m old enough now.”
Playmate? Nikolai smiled and shrugged. “I have no plans, and I don’t think Tamás has any.”
Tamás shook his head and busied himself with packing the laptop.
“Are you guys up for dinner, then? We happen to have a number of fantastic restaurants in the city,” Henri offered.
“Sure. Sounds good.” That had to be a positive sign; Henri LeBeau would hardly waste his precious time if he (and his uncle) weren’t interested. In business, it was all about relationships. And even if this deal didn’t come through, Henri might be willing to give them some pointers on who else was on the market to back Cybele’s mining program.
“Great. Where should I pick you up?”
“We’re at the Drake Hotel.” It wasn’t the Fairmount Royal York, but it had looked so much friendlier on the Internet, and Tamás had been enthusiastic about possibly meeting an American celebrity in the bar, as it was apparently the place to be in certain circles.
“Fine, yes.” Nikolai pulled one of his cards from his pocket and handed it over. “My number.”
Henri looked down at it, then smiled brightly. “Great. I’ll show you out, eh?” He led the way and guided them both to the elevator. Once the doors slid shut, he looked back at Nikolai. “Don’t worry too much about this. It’s very much business as usual.”
“I haven’t done this before.”
Henri grinned. “Ah, a corporate virgin.”
Nikolai glanced at him, lost for a riposte, and was glad when the elevator binged open. Henri led them out into the foyer and waved the security guy to unlock the turnstile. “See you later.”
“Looking forward to it,” Nikolai said and crossed the expanse of the foyer. Once outside, he breathed a sigh of relief that he’d held inside to not look like a complete idiot. “Wow, that was weird.”
Tamás shrugged. “I think we did a good job, though.”
“Best we could, given the circumstances, but we should have left it to the bankers. It’s not like we can’t afford a corporate finance shark to smile and polish door handles.” Nikolai moved toward a row of taxis. “Let’s get back to the hotel. Shit, we should have booked the Royal York or Westin Harbor Castle or whatever.”
Tamás patted his shoulder. “You going to call Ruslan?”
“The moment I get this suit off.”
Nikolai got into the taxi and gave the address to the driver, then leaned back and pulled at the knot in his tie. “Shower, a bite, and then I’ll call him.”
“I’m just wondering how I can bow out of the dinner tonight.”
“Why? At the very least, it’s going to be a free nice meal.”
“Just haven’t been sleeping very well. Didn’t get any sleep on the plane, either.”
“I slept like a baby.”
“I know. You snored.” Tamás smiled at him. “I’ll probably just call it an early night and order something to the room.”
“I can make excuses for you. It’s probably just schmoozing—checking us out, I don’t know. If it were business, I’d think the old man would be there.”
“I’ll owe you.”
“That’s fine, Tamás. You worked hard for all this.”
Tamás looked relieved and Nikolai had to admit that he looked stressed and exhausted now that the corporate façade was falling away. The guy urgently needed a shower and his bed, rather than to be dragged around town by some manager type who had a lot more energy after a long day than either of them.
Nikolai fastened a towel around his hips and settled on the bed before he dialed Ruslan’s number, but Ruslan didn’t pick up. So he pulled out his laptop, connected it to the Internet, and typed a quick email, telling him the meeting had gone well and that he’d be out talking to one of the LeBeaus some more.
There was an email from his father, telling him he’d arrived back in New Zealand from a trip to the States and he was welcome to visit any time. Nikolai typed a quick response saying he’d love to once he got a few days off.
Of course, Vadim wasn’t getting any younger, but New Zealand was a long way away and not really on the way to anywhere Nikolai would need to go. Okay, he’d fly over. It had taken so long to build a relationship with his father that he did his best to keep it. It hurt to think they might not have that many years left, or that his father’s health could deteriorate.
Thinking of Vadim as a frail man didn’t work at all. He’d always looked enormous, indestructible, but maybe all fathers did when you were a kid. During his soldiering days, he’d been absent more than at home, and then he’d left permanently and divorced Nikolai’s mother before Nikolai had hit puberty. He’d reconnected with Nikolai only two years before marrying a Scotsman in 2006. They’d managed to stay in touch, but Nikolai always expected Vadim would simply walk away and reappear a totally changed man yet again. He was lucky that Szandor, a gay friend of his mother’s, had been there during the roughest years of growing up.
Of course I’ll come. Currently in Toronto, any chance we can meet up in a week or so? I’ll get tickets booked ASAP.
He was dry after he’d gone through his email, and he pulled his suitcase out from under his bed to dig for fresh clothes. Suit for dinner? Had Henri said restaurant or bar? What was the custom here? If it was business, suit, but this wasn’t purely business. Then again, why else would Henri want to chat? The dinner invite was about letting his hair down. Damn, an invitation to a bar or pub would have been easier to parse. Don’t be a tool, Nikolai. Go with your gut.
His gut was firmly in the “could eat a horse—in bed” camp, though, so no big help.
Jeans then. As much as Vadim liked to dress up, his father wore a mean pair of jeans himself, and these had gotten Vadim’s approval. Dark blue stonewashed, designer, but scuffed and softened from getting down and dirty all over the world. His favorite pair. He then selected one of the tailored shirts and snatched the suit jacket off the hook. It was the casual-but-expensive look that covered both bases. He wouldn’t look too out of place either in a bar or a restaurant, and he figured Henri would have warned him if it was supposed to be more official than that.
He combed through his damp hair and let it dry like it wanted. It was too short to look like a total mess. He then settled in front of his laptop and answered the less urgent emails, a couple sent by Tamás, who was on the same floor but probably already conked out on the bed.
And a reply from Vadim: I’ll be here. Want to meet in Wellington or at home?
Whenever they met, Vadim usually showed him a part of New Zealand—probably, Nikolai suspected, a part he’d just explored himself. He remembered the long nights in Rotorua, finally talking about all the things that had remained unspoken for way too many years. Vadim never found that easy, talking, but he appreciated it when they could speak somewhere with few distractions.
Wellington, Nikolai emailed back. I’ll book a hotel there. I’ll be done here on Tuesday.
He’d barely typed “hotel” and “Wellington” into Google when Vadim forwarded him a booking confirmation for the Museum Art Hotel in Wellington. Seven nights. Suite.
Nikolai pulled his phone from his pocket and hit the speed dial.
“Yes, same here,” Nikolai muttered, slightly exasperated at being outrun by his old man. “How are you doing?”
“I’m doing well. I was just at the computer.”
Vadim huffed softly.
“I mean, it’s appreciated, but I’m earning my own money these days.”
“You’re covering the flights.”
“That’s . . . beside the point, but yeah, you’re right.” His father was financially comfortable. A few hundred Kiwi dollars more or less wouldn’t kill him or lose him the house. Damn, it was that same eggshell dance again. Somehow, dealing with his father always made him cautious, and it wasn’t just because they were missing so many years of shared history and frankly still had no idea how to treat each other naturally or easily. “I mean, thank you. I assume that’s a good one?”
“Jean and Solange loved it when they came over.”
“Jean’s going to love anything near the gay district,” Nikolai said half to himself.
“Well, then trust Solange’s taste.”
“Mixed results there, with that husband.”
Vadim chuckled. “You don’t like him?”
“Did I ever tell you he tried to come on to me?”
“When was that?”
“When you and your husband got married. He got drunk and I thought he was getting awfully close.”
“Jean’s always been challenged in terms of personal space.”
“Or, you know, truthfulness and honesty.” Cheating on his beautiful wife with a number of gay buddies.
“He’s not going to be here when you come over. They’re in France.”
“Anybody else going to be there?”
“No.” That meant his partner was traveling and meeting friends. But digging for specifics was useless. Vadim shared as much as he was comfortable with and nothing more.
“Any other responsibilities?”
“I’ll let people know I won’t be teaching that week. It’s fine. I’ll leave them in the hands of one of the advanced students.”
“Okay. I just don’t want to disrupt your life too much.” That was one of the harder lessons he’d learned in life so far. That other people had normal jobs and owned houses (or were still paying them off), and that he couldn’t just blunder into their routine and hope they’d always welcome him.
Thoughtful silence. His father might be building up to say something very profound out of nowhere, like he sometimes did.
“I mean, I’m looking forward to it,” he continued, aware it sounded lame.
“That’s all that counts,” Vadim said. Something creaked in the background. Maybe he was getting up or pacing in the living room. “Send me your flight details. I’ll pick you up.”
“That would be ideal. We’ll drive down to Wellington together.”
“Okay.” Nikolai smiled. “Thanks, Dad.”
Vadim hung up, and Nikolai turned back to his laptop. He checked a dozen websites, but even the connecting flight via San Francisco was something like six and a half thousand Canadian dollars. He grimaced. So much for a quick dash down to New Zealand. There were places in the world where he could live quite comfortably for many months on that kind of cash.
But his father had already booked the hotel and was looking forward to seeing him, and calling again to tell him it wouldn’t happen quite so soon wouldn’t be good. He hated disappointing his father. And he might be able to write off at least part of that expense on his taxes. It wouldn’t be the first time he bought outrageous tickets because he wanted to be in a specific place as fast as possible, or to simply get away. So he booked the damned tickets and, once the confirmation arrived, took pains to forward only the dates and flight numbers.
He checked his watch. Fifteen minutes now. So he went for a leak, combed his mostly dry hair again, and emailed Tamás about his travel plans. He’d explain the absence to Ruslan later. It wasn’t as if he had to sit on Ruslan’s lap every hour of every day.
He slid his credit card into his wallet, stuffed it in his back pocket, and took the hotel key card with him. Down in the lobby, he recognized Henri, who was playing with his cell phone, probably to kill the last few minutes.
Nikolai walked up to him. “Hey. You’re already here?”
Henri glanced up, startled, then gave him a warm, oddly heartfelt smile. “Nikolai. Yes, I thought—I didn’t want to be late.”
“Uh. There’s been a change of plans. I don’t think anything could revive Tamás that’s allowable under the Geneva Conventions.”
Henri looked concerned. “Is he all right?”
“Yes, just dead tired. We’ve all been working pretty hard, but he worked the hardest. I think the most humane thing is to let him sleep.”
“How about you?”
“I’m fine. I’m a night owl.”
“I don’t want to make you come out when you’d rather stay in.”
Nikolai shook his head. “Seriously, I’m good. Just lead the way.”
Henri motioned him outside and stepped up to a silver sports car that looked as if it could take off like a rocket. The door slid up and stood vertically. Nikolai levered himself into the car, which was awkward at his size. No way it could be easy for a woman in heels, either. But once he was inside, there was a surprising amount of legroom, and the molded leather seats held him so comfortably he wasn’t sure he wanted to get up again. Henri slid the door shut behind him and walked around the car, then opened the door on the driver’s side.
The middle console was high enough to comfortably rest an arm on, and it led right into a panel that looked like something from a starship. Henri settled and pulled his seat belt into place. Nikolai copied him, usually comfortable not to wear one, but in this car, he figured he’d rather be safe than very squashed.
“Where would you like to go?” Henri asked.
“This thing probably goes to the moon.”
“Not on what I have left in the tank.”
Nikolai laughed and relaxed into the seat. “Wherever. I’ll trust you.”
“Seafood? Steak? A pub?”
“Ideally nowhere with a dress code.”
“Let’s do steak. Though they do other things as well.” Henri tapped the starship dial thing between them, and the car came alive with a deep, gentle vibration. Nikolai almost laughed at how weirdly sensual that seemed, the sports car purring like a tiger around him. It was probably a huge hit with the ladies, even though Henri didn’t look like any of those middle-aged losers with too much money and too little hair who needed a car like this to get laid.
“This car considerably shortens foreplay, doesn’t it?”
Henri stared at him, then laughed. “Do you like high-end cars?”
Nikolai wasn’t quite sure how Henri had jumped to that conclusion. “I’m more a Jeep or Land Rover kind of guy myself. This car wouldn’t be able to cope with the places I usually travel. Try driving this anywhere in the Armenian outback.”
Henri nodded. “It’s certainly a comfortable way to be in the middle of a classic Toronto traffic jam.” He pressed another button. The engine purred louder, sounding eager now, and Henri pulled out of the parking space. And damn if it wasn’t a stylish way to float along the streets. Nikolai leaned back and listened to the engine and glanced outside the window at yet another strange new city. Why was it that all cities were the same at night?
The car was gliding pleasantly along. He should probably make conversation, but on the other hand, distracting a driver wasn’t polite, so Nikolai just let him be.
Eventually, Henri pulled into a side street and parked. Damn, this was a nice little car.
“It’s just your friendly neighborhood steakhouse, but one of my favorite places.”
The restaurant didn’t look like much from the outside, and inside, Nikolai would have been surprised if more than twenty-five people could fit into the main room. Maybe there was more space in the back, but he somehow doubted it.
The few patrons seemed like a good mix—couples, mostly, and a group of young women, two of whom looked at him and smiled. Nikolai smiled back, momentarily distracted. He needed to concentrate, though, so he settled with his back to the room.
They ordered drinks—Henri went with red wine and Nikolai joined him for a bottle. “One of us will have to drive,” he warned.
Henri smiled. “I might let you drive my car if you’re good.”
“Maybe I should get you drunk, then.”
“You like the car?” Henri asked, leaning forward.
“Enough to get you drunk,” Nikolai warned when the wine came.
“Taking advantage of my French genetic vulnerability. I see how it is.” Henri laughed. “Fine. You can drive it.” He took the wineglass and saluted Nikolai with it, then deliberately took two deep draughts.
Nikolai grinned and hid behind his menu for a few moments. He went with the aged sirloin and plenty of salad. Henri didn’t even check the menu and just ordered “the usual” when the waiter showed up. Nikolai gave him the menu, relaxing into the anticipation of the food.
Henri finished his wine and poured himself a second glass. He grinned, still amused from their banter, it seemed. “I’m sorry you found my uncle disagreeable.”
“As long as he agrees in the end, I don’t mind.”
“You’d take his bossing around as long he signs the contract?”
Nikolai paused while the waiter lit the candle between them. He tapped the stem of his glass with a finger. “He’s right to be skeptical. I would. That’s a lot of money.”
“Not for him. We had a record year. Record profits. Our analysts are begging us to make some acquisitions; the war chest is full and we need to grow.”
“We were hoping for an investment, not to be bought out.” Ruslan losing control of his baby—that thought hurt. “Our CEO, Ruslan Polunin, won’t accept a full takeover offer.”
“Not even a hostile one?”
“Jesus.” Nikolai stared Henri in the face. “Seriously?”
Henri shrugged. “My uncle didn’t build an empire by playing nice. Though I don’t know what strategy he’ll use here. Fact is, we have the money to just take you over.”
Nikolai rubbed his face. How would he explain that to Ruslan? “We would really prefer for that not to happen.” Only forty percent of the company was free float, but LeBeau could always launch a bid for the shares their large investors were holding.
Henri glanced up when their steaks arrived, leaned back from the table, and smiled softly. He was a good-looking man, Nikolai realized. An oddly square jaw in an otherwise more delicate face.
“Why are you telling me this? It’s not in your interest.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions about my interest. Personally, I think people should know what’s coming for them.”
“Oh? That seems like giving the advantage away. You’re going to be CEO after your uncle, so why would you step in when he’s after some small fry like us?”
“I prefer both people to know they’re playing chess, rather than one guy thinking he’s playing checkers.” Henri leaned down over his food and drew in a deep breath. Both slabs of grilled meat looked absolutely delicious, although Nikolai wasn’t sure he felt like eating. He’d likely be hungry if he returned to the hotel without having eaten. The half-finished packet of peanuts he had somewhere in his suitcase wasn’t really any kind of competition. Besides, he didn’t want to give away how rattled he was.
“Ruslan’s going to fight for Cybele,” he said and began to cut up his steak. As ordered, it was just faintly pink in the middle, whereas Henri’s had a purple strip. Working in the tropics had cured Nikolai of the desire to eat anything raw.
“You also seem to care a great deal about a company that doesn’t actually make much money.”
“None, so far.”
“So, how’s it paying salaries?”
“Oh, so you own a few percent?”
Nikolai shrugged and glanced at his plate while chewing the first bite. “That’s an amazing steak.”
“It rather is, isn’t it? My favorite place for dead cow from Alberta.” Henri gingerly cut off a bite, movements precise and oh so civilized. But at the rate he was going through the heavy red wine, he’d be drunk before he cleared his plate. “But is that how the whole operation works?”
“No. The guys who need a salary are getting one. I don’t. I take the shares.”
“It’s my pension plan.”
“Ah, a man who can delay gratification. That’s rare.” Henri gave him a dirty grin, and Nikolai backtracked, but didn’t see anything in his statement that had invited that. He glanced down at Henri’s hands. No ring or traces of one. Instead, a Rolex. Glittering cufflinks that were likely diamonds—which made sense for a diamond and gold miner. Strong fingers, longish hands, fingernails immaculate. Hands that hadn’t physically worked a day in their life. His own hands looked uncouth by comparison. He had calluses, for one, and worn skin, short-trimmed fingernails that had never been polished or manicured (despite his father’s best efforts to get him to a spa somewhere in Thailand to relax). Nikolai liked what his hands said about him.
“You assume I get gratification out of money,” Nikolai told his steak, then glanced up.
Henri sucked in a deep breath and put his glass down. A drop of wine clung to his lower lip, and Nikolai stared at it until Henri dabbed it away with his serviette. “How do you get your kicks then, Nikolai?”
The room’s atmosphere had changed; the electric charge was odd, but he couldn’t deny it. Was it that Henri was flirting with him? He wasn’t great at telling whether a guy was gay or not. For the longest time he’d thought Jean, of all people, was straight. His father never gave away that he was gay, though that was probably one of those things a child could never tell. Nikolai kept eating, using the cutting and chewing and swallowing to win time. Besides, the steak was spectacular. He shrugged and looked at Henri. “I’m really a simple guy. I stand by my friends, and Ruslan is a friend.”
“We—” Why would Henri ask him about his kicks and whether he was close with Ruslan? He was fishing for something. “He’s my boss and my friend. He built that company from nothing. He’s an extremely hard worker, and I’ve never seen him treat anybody unfairly. He gave me a job when I needed one, and he’s never asked anything from me I couldn’t give him.” That sounded wrong, so he added, “I’ve only started to learn my job there. A few years ago, I knew nothing about gold or very much about geology. He gave me time to learn. I’m grateful for that.”
“So what did he see in you?”
“He said I’m a good guy, and a good guy shouldn’t go to waste.”
Henri leaned back and regarded him, then drank more wine. Somehow, they were on the second bottle, and Nikolai had only had one glass. He switched to water. Was Henri trying to make himself vulnerable? Spill his plans and claim later he’d been drunk? These corporate mindfucks were so not his usual game. He wished Tamás were here so he could talk to somebody without having to consider traps and double-dealing.
“Know what? I like this Ruslan, and I haven’t even met him.” Henri turned his wineglass in his hand. “Seems he has a gift for people. Seeing potential. Seeing through people.”
“In my case, that’s as easy as looking through a window,” Nikolai joked.
“Maybe.” Henri smiled at him, and looked completely friendly and pleasant doing that. “Dessert?”
Nikolai patted his stomach. “I’m good. That was a big steak.”
“My pleasure,” Henri said and made eye contact with the waiter, who came over, cleared the plates away, and then presented the bill. Henri pulled the leather folder closer and glanced at it, then slapped his card inside and pushed it away, where the waiter gathered it up.
Nikolai took another big sip of water, half finishing the glass, and then, comfortably halfway between sated and full, waited for Henri to settle the bill before Henri guided him out again.
Henri was swaying on his feet, and Nikolai glanced worriedly at the car. Would he be driving? “Here. You earned it,” Henri said as if he were indulging his son.
“I can take a taxi.”
“Come on, Nikolai. I really don’t want to leave the car out here.” Henri tossed him the keys in a playful arch, and Nikolai caught them.
“What if I crash it?”
“Then you crash it. It’s carbon fiber, it’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, because that’s cheap.” Nikolai blew out a breath, fortifying himself. He unlocked, slid in, and the first thing he did was push back the seat a bit—after Henri explained how. This car was way too complicated for him. “Right, and now?”
Henri pulled the seat belt across himself. “I’ll deal with the buttons. You just drive.”
“Okay.” The car started on a button press, and Nikolai struggled to get his head around the controls. Once he’d pulled out and the car was moving, it was easy. He even enjoyed it, though the car was extremely sensitive when he dared to rest his foot on the gas more than lightly. And the tiny wheel also exaggerated every movement. The art of driving this was to proceed as gently as if holding a box of rattlesnakes.
“Very good.” Henri slumped back in his seat. “Going to drive me home?”
“Sure. I can get a taxi from there.”
They headed toward a tall condo building on Lakeshore Boulevard, and Henri made him pull into a garage and park in a reserved space surrounded by other flashy cars. Only then did he take his hands off the wheel. Henri smiled, looking relaxed and happy.
“You didn’t crash it.”
Nikolai chuckled. “Thanks. It’s quite a car. Good taste.”
“I do.” Henri not so much turned his head as let it roll to the side. “Do you know what I’d really like to do?”
“Course not. I might be really crass now, Nikolai. But I guess who dares wins, eh? Just drunk enough to not care.”
Nikolai’s chest tightened. “Listen . . .”
“I’d really like to blow you.” Henri lifted his eyebrows. “Really. Very much.”
Are you crazy? Is this your idea of corporate bonding? “You’re drunk.”
Henri shook his head. “I steered you here. I’m mens rea or whatever that’s called. I was thinking about that even while you were doing your presentation. I thought, ‘Henri, damn it, boy, here’s a guy I’d love to suck off.’”
Nikolai shifted in his seat. First of all, he shouldn’t even listen to a drunk guy fantasizing about giving him a blowjob. Secondly, his gaydar, already not the most reliable one in existence, had spectacularly failed. Thirdly, the idea held appeal, and he wasn’t drunk. He didn’t get offered that many blowjobs, and certainly not from a guy like Henri, who seemed nice and fun and looked good and had absolutely nothing to do with the kind of people Nikolai normally surrounded himself with. Henri wasn’t a rig pig, or anything like all the very fit and dangerous men his father called friends.
“You’re incredibly appealing, Nikolai. I like you.”
“Funny way of showing that. It’s not exactly like a handshake and shoulder pat.”
“If it were, the world would be a better place, is what I’m thinking.” Henri unbuckled his seat belt. “Now. I’m pretty good at blowing.”
With every word Henri said, Nikolai’s body grew more interested. It was bizarre, totally out of place, unexpected. Unprofessional. “I’m not actually . . .”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Then it’s no big deal. I’ve sucked off straight men. Every one enjoyed it.”
“No doubt, it’s just . . .” Nikolai chuckled. “We’re also doing this business thing.”
“Let’s keep that separate. Nothing more than the dinner the company paid for.”
“Dinner and a blowjob? Full service.”
“You really need to get a girlfriend if you’ve forgotten the benefits of that,” Henri joked. “Come on. Let’s go upstairs. The garage has cameras; I’m not getting caught down here again.”
Again? Despite his conservative suit, it seemed Henri was quite the adventurer. Nikolai wasn’t sure how to take that—maybe just at face value. He was still reeling as they walked through the well-lit garage toward an elevator, and thank God they didn’t encounter anybody on the way up.
The doors opened onto a bright corridor with modern artwork on the walls that his father would have liked. And he really shouldn’t think about Vadim when he was following a stranger for a lewd sex act. He pulled his thoughts away from that angle and focused on Henri, the endearing way he wasn’t quite walking in a straight line, or how he fumbled with his keys. Nikolai somehow doubted that was nerves.
Henri opened the door into an enormous penthouse large enough to have an impressive fountain in the middle of it: the green soapstone pillar was carved with whorls and abstract animal shapes, water streaming from the top down the sculpted lines and into a square basin. The running water made the air clean and crisp, but the sound of it was even better. He’d spent months in various tropical locations just to lie on the beach and listen to the ocean. Water in all forms fascinated him, and he could have stared at this sculpture for an hour or so and not been bored. “That’s nice.”
“Bought it from a Cree sculptor. Relative of my mother, which explains my looks.” Henri loosened his tie before he pulled it off completely.
Nikolai’s mouth went dry just considering why he was doing that. He watched as Henri took his jacket off and hung it up in a wardrobe, tie nonchalantly draped around its shoulders. He opened the cufflinks and dropped them into a trouser pocket. In those finely cut tight trousers, his erection was clearly visible. Jeans just kept things better in place.
Henri waved him farther into the penthouse. Far to the left was an impressive kitchen with dark gray granite tops, where Henri dropped his phone into an empty steel fruit bowl. To the right was a living area surrounded by massive, fitted bookshelves and a fireplace, all in gray granite and white wood and cream leather, with the occasional drop of color for contrast. Here a burgundy lampshade, there cushions in yellow, orange, rose, and red. And an enormous flatscreen TV.
Henri touched him on the shoulder. Nikolai realized he didn’t mind the touch at all, even when it became firmer, reassuring, and the fingers ran toward his shoulder blade. “So much tension.”
“I haven’t done this before.” He’d fucked strangers, sure, but never men. This wasn’t the first time he’d been propositioned, and he’d wondered once or twice, just for a second, what it might be like, but never before had he been interested enough to follow somebody home. What was it about the situation that made it possible? That Henri was a stranger and yet wasn’t?
Henri’s hand roamed from one side of his back to the other. “Just sit down. Relax. Unless you want to leave?”
Nikolai headed toward one of the chairs in the living room, noticed that Henri dimmed the light. His feet sank into the large rug, and he thought it was the kind where you could actually kneel down to deliver a blowjob comfortably. He could leave, of course he could. Maybe he should, though he believed Henri when he said he was together enough to know what he was doing. But he was curious, and he was horny. Damn, it was free sex with somebody who could hold his side of a conversation, and who wouldn’t tattle about it, either. It might even be the best damn thing to come out of this ill-fated trip.
He fell into the chair and opened his legs, willing himself to relax. He rested his head against the back and reached for his belt.
“I’ll do that.” Henri touched him on the shoulder again.
“Okay.” Nikolai glanced up when Henri walked around, and he was curious about the bulge in the guy’s trousers, curious how the sex would be, if gay guys were actually much better at blowjobs, which was what the rumor said. Henri ran his fingers down his arm, a soothing touch that established something between them. “You can take off your jacket if you want.”
Nikolai leaned forward and fumbled out of it, then tossed it on the couch just a foot away and settled again. Now Henri was kneeling down between his legs, and he opened them wider. This felt weird, receptive, much more so than if a woman were doing it. Henri placed both hands on his thighs, and Nikolai tensed them briefly for Henri’s benefit.
“That’s gorgeous,” Henri said in a low voice.
Henri wasn’t half bad, either. Nikolai smiled at him, not quite ready to pay a compliment in return. Henri leaned forward, sliding his hands up Nikolai’s thighs, and the touch might just have been the most erotic thing anybody had done to him in a long time. The awkwardness of the situation made this deliberation and care even more intense. Henri was building a physical trust between them before any more happened.
The fingers went up to his belt, and slowly, Henri took the tongue and slid it out of the loop, then pulled and opened the buckle. His gaze was firmly on Nikolai’s groin, a single-minded attention and focus that made Nikolai shiver. That alone turned him on, and Henri hadn’t even touched him yet. At least nowhere that really mattered.
Henri opened the belt and then traced one hand along the seam of the jeans, nothing more than a tickle, barely noticeable, but just seeing it made Nikolai tilt his hips. He hadn’t been quite sure he wanted this, but now he did. If Henri used the same deliberation when blowing him—
He swallowed and jerked when Henri’s knuckles brushed his balls. Gentle, teasing, so much care and attention and yes, probably skill that Nikolai couldn’t wait to see what else he’d do. He opened his legs wider, giving permission. Even giving his trust.
Henri leaned in and brushed his cheek against Nikolai’s groin, which made Nikolai gasp. Shit. His dick was completely awake now, wanting to fit into something, anything really, mouth or more. “I believe I have your attention,” Henri teased. “I was thinking about this all evening. All day. I want to make you come, Nikolai.”
“Then do it.” The words were out before he could consider them. He reached for the buttons of his jeans. “How . . .?”
“Slowly.” Henri batted his hands away and pulled the first button open. Nikolai tensed his stomach, tried not to squirm on the chair, tried not to spur him on. He enjoyed the teasing, although it freaked him out. Maybe it was just the novelty, or the fact that he’d never taken any of the invitations he’d gotten from other men. He didn’t want his friends and colleagues to find out he’d even consider that, and once it was in circulation, gossip traveled fast and was unstoppable. And largely, he’d been happy all his life to hang out with straight men and play by their rules while the gay guys did their thing. Just not his world.
Warily, he watched Henri open the other buttons, hoping he’d pull his jeans and boxers down and get to work, but all Henri did was lean in and nuzzle against the patch of underwear. And his dick. Henri’s warm breath touched him there and Nikolai groaned, digging his fingers into the armrests. The warm, moist breath was just a teaser for the real thing, but it turned him on something fierce. Henri’s hand slid up under his shirt to his belly, and Nikolai remembered to breathe. It should feel weirder, stranger, but it didn’t. Instead it thrilled him, fired up every nerve.
“Can you take this off?”
Nikolai opened his shirt. Henri pushed his undershirt up, baring his abs and chest to his nipples, then placed a kiss on his belly. Interesting that he’d start a blowjob nowhere near his dick. Nikolai moaned when Henri licked the skin there, tracing the lines of his stomach down toward his boxers.
And while Nikolai’s mind was still focused on where that tongue was going, Henri pulled his jeans and boxers down, then, in one elegant, skillful motion, took his dick into his mouth.
Nikolai arched into the touch, turned on beyond all reason. Henri’s first movements were deep, taking him in almost completely, as if he didn’t have to prepare or get used to him at all. All Nikolai did was sit back and enjoy himself. Maybe he should have done this sooner. He’d been missing out; this felt amazing. What on earth had he been worried about?
Henri cupped and gently squeezed his balls, perfectly in time with the movements of his head. The sounds, those slurps and stifled moans, went deep into his guts, tightening his balls, and the view of the wide-open lips wrapped tightly around his dick, sliding up and down—now, that was a totally different category to imagining. One of Henri’s hands wasn’t visible, and his shoulder was moving in a pumping motion. Henri was jerking himself off in time with his strokes, his face showing nothing but pleasure and desire and need. It was beautiful. Sexy as anything Nikolai had ever seen or felt, and he wanted nothing more than to wallow in it, allow it to happen, allow Henri to get him off.
He reached down to run two fingertips along Henri’s cheekbone. Henri promptly lost his rhythm and glanced up at him. And maybe that look, and that twitch of his wide-open lips, was the sexiest thing of all. Nikolai lost what he wanted to say in that look, and Henri concentrated again on his pleasure. Their pleasure. Nikolai cleared his throat, gasped when Henri took him down to the root, his throat muscles tightening. He rested his hand in Henri’s hair, splayed fingers through the black curls, half yearning to grab him and hold him in place and fuck his throat, and half aware that wasn’t exactly polite.
He still pushed up, and Henri caught the hint. He was going for it now, pumping up and down on him, then curling his fist around Nikolai’s length, jerking him off while concentrating on the tip. That did it. Nikolai felt the orgasm build rapidly, like pieces falling into place. His balls drew up and every muscle tensed. “Shit, I’m . . .”
Just before Nikolai climaxed, Henri pulled away and kept jerking him off. Nikolai came against the man’s cheek and lips and throat, spurt after spurt, and Henri kept going, stroking him slowly and firmly through it.
Nikolai fell back into the chair, all tension drained into nothing, the post-orgasmic crash deep and entirely satisfying. Henri’s hand on his own dick was still moving.
“Let me . . . see,” Nikolai said, breathless. Henri looked at him quizzically, and Nikolai dropped his hand lower and mimicked jerking off. “Show me.”
Henri clambered to his feet, supported himself on one of the armrests, and kept moving, face so focused and intent he had to be close. Only his fly was open, his cock sticking out of the suit trousers, and he was moving his hand over it frantically, alternating between squeezing the head in his palm and a full-fisted death grip. Nikolai hooked his foot around Henri’s thigh and pulled him closer until the man was stooping and nearly covering him, then reached out and touched the harshly moving hand, tentative, feeling the damp of sweat and pre-cum, suddenly aware of the enormous power in this, the generosity, Henri’s vulnerability. He tightened his hand and felt Henri’s arousal echo in his own body. He wanted to make him feel good, give a little back. He didn’t think he’d ever be ready to take him in his mouth, but a hand was fine. Even hot.
Henri dug his free hand into the back of the chair while Nikolai helped him the last bit of the way. He groaned and stiffened, and just a second later, Nikolai felt Henri’s cum splatter on his belly and his chest. It was oddly, weirdly touching to experience this, and to touch a guy who was beside himself with the desperate need to come and watch him as he came.
. . .