Innocent in the Ivory Tower Online - Lucy Ellis

CHAPTER ONE

ALEXEI RANAEVSKY strode across the light-filled environs of his floating boardroom and picked up the newspaper one of his staff had been careless enough to leave behind.

He had made it clear he wanted to see no reportage of the Kulikov tragedy, but now the initial shock was wearing off he found himself drawn to what could only be described as the circus that was attaching itself to events. How to dismantle that circus was his current concern.

How to grieve for his closest friend would come after.

Events had moved to the third page. A picture of Leo and Anais at a race meeting in Dubai, Leo’s head thrown back, laughing, his arm welded around Anais’s slender waist. A golden couple. Alongside was exactly what Alexei didn’t want to see: a photograph of the mangled car wreck. The 1967 Aston Martin—Leo’s ‘baby’—nothing more than steel and destroyed electronics. Leo and Anais’s very human bodies hadn’t stood a chance.

The commentary below—because you couldn’t call it news—was adjective-heavy, full of references to Anais’s beauty and Leo’s work for the UN. Alexei scanned it for a few seconds, then sucked in a sharp breath.

Konstantine Kulikov.

Kostya.

There was something about seeing that name in print that made what had felt for days now like a nightmare fiercely, immediately real. At least there was no picture of the boy. Leo had been intensely guarded about their private life: he and Anais had been fair game for the media, but their family life had been off-limits to anyone outside their circle. It was a sentiment Alexei admired him for. It was a rule he laid down in his own life. There was the public man, and the private familya, and the fact that Leo had been that family for him made his grief all the more stupefying.

‘Alexei?’

His head snapped up, jaw hard, eyes emotionless.

For a second her name evaded him. ‘Tara,’ he said.

If she noticed the lapse it did not register on her stunning face. It was a face that was currently making her several million dollars a year in beauty endorsements, in lieu of an acting career that had gone nowhere.

‘Everyone’s waiting, darling,’ she said smoothly, crossing the space between them and pulling the newspaper out of his hands.

It was the wrong thing to do.

He had never struck a woman in his life, and he had no intention of starting now, but every fibre of his body wanted to lash out. Instead he froze. Tara lifted her chin defiantly. She was nothing if not bold—and wasn’t that what had drawn him to her?

‘You don’t need to look at that trash,’ she said harshly. ‘You need to pull it together and get out there and put a civilised face on this whole debacle.’

Everything she said was everything he knew, but something—some important mechanism between his brain and his emotions—had snapped. Many would say he didn’t have any emotions, not real ones. He certainly hadn’t cried for Leo and Anais. He hadn’t even cried for his own dead parents. But there was something surging through him that his brain wasn’t going to be able to control. Something that had its wellspring in that child’s name in black-and-white in newspaper ink.

Kostya.

Orphaned.

Alone.

Tara’s ‘debacle’.

‘Let them wait,’ he said coldly, his English coloured by his Russian accent. ‘And what in the hell are you wearing? This isn’t a cocktail party—it’s a family gathering.’

Tara snorted laughter. It was one of the traits he had once found appealing about her, her lack of self-consciousness—as if her overwhelming physical beauty made it possible for her to say anything, do anything, be anything.

‘Family? Give me a break—those people aren’t your family.’ She reached out and pressed her red-taloned hand to his waist, taut beneath the expensively tailored cream shirt. ‘You have as much family feeling as a cat, Alexei,’ she stated, face upturned, lips wet and red, her hand making its way down the front of his dark trousers. ‘A big, mean, feral cat. Very big.’ Her hand settled on what she found there. ‘Not up to play today, darling?’

His body had begun to respond as long familiarity with the process had taught it, but sex was not on today’s agenda. It hadn’t been on the agenda since Monday, when his right-hand man, Carlo, had brought him the news in the early hours. He remembered the snapping on of the lamp, Carlo’s murmured voice as he laid out the spare, basic facts such as they had been. Then he had been alone in that big flat bed, swimming