Here you'll find the first chapter of one of my releases.
I know authors don't like to play favourites with their books, but I absolutely LOVED writing Playing the Billionaire's Game. It was so much fun and was inspired by The Thomas Crown Affair, a film that I was obsessed with for many more reasons than a certain staircase scene, I promise.
PLAYING THE BILLIONAIRE'S GAME
'You’re playing a dangerous game.' But is she playing for business, or pleasure?
Fourteen days. That’s how long exiled Duke Sebastian gives art valuer Sia Keating to try and prove he stole a famous painting. Once she has proof, she’ll demand her job back! She’s worked too hard to build her reputation and throw off her father’s corrupt shadow. She won’t go down without a fight.
But having complete access to his life doesn’t mean Sia can breach the gap Sebastian keeps between himself and the world. That’s something only embracing their dangerous attraction can do…
Interviewer One: Ms Keating, you understand that this interview is being recorded for internal Bonnaire’s purposes only and that you do not need a lawyer present?
Ms Keating: I’m afraid that hasn’t convinced me that I don’t need one.
Interviewer One: But you understand the statement that I have just made?
Ms Keating: Yes.
Interviewer One: Then, if you would, can you please explain how you came to believe that the painting in question was a fake?
Ms Keating: As I have already explained, the painting I assessed in Sharjarhere was most definitely not a fake.
Interviewer One: But you have stated that the painting, Woman in Love, up for auction after a private viewing at Bonnaire’s London gallery and damaged on the night of June the twenty-first, was a fake?
Ms Keating: [brief pause] Yes. That specific painting was a fake.
Interviewer Two: And you claim that this was a different painting from the one you assessed, certified and valued in Sharjarhere and attributed to the painter Etienne Durrántez, owned by Sheikh Alham Abrani?
Ms Keating: Yes.
Interviewer Two: Why is that?
Ms Keating: Because I’m very good at my job.
Interviewer One: We’ll get to that later. For the moment, can you explain the circumstances under which you identified the damaged painting as a fake?
Sia Keating had been breathing hard even before the harsh ring of her phone broke through the nightmare that held her in its grip. She’d been fighting a losing battle with the stranglehold her sheets had around her arms and neck.
Several days later she would wonder if that moment hadn’t been prophetic somehow. She’d woken with a feeling of dread. One that seemed to deepen the moment the words reached her from the mobile phone she pressed to her ear.
‘Sia, we have a problem.’
Her heart dropped so quickly she wasn’t able to form a response for David, the head of Scientific Research. Partly because his nickname in the department was the ‘Art Detective’ and as much as she liked the bespectacled, calm-toned man, there was only one reason an art valuer got a phone call from him.
‘The Abrani painting. It’s been damaged.’
Sia flung back the covers and pushed her hair out of her face, concern for the beautiful piece cutting through the fog from her nightmare. ‘How?’
‘There was apparently some kind of altercation at the gallery.’
‘Galleries don’t have altercations,’ she replied, confused. She cast a look at the clock by her bed. It was two o’clock in the morning. But he’d said the painting was only damaged? If so, then why was David calling her?
‘They did tonight. But the painting…there’s a problem. Could you come down and take a look at it for me? Something’s not right.’
For the entire journey between her little studio flat in Archway and the gallery in Goodge Street, Sia’s heart pounded with fear. The kind of fear that heralded the termination of careers. David might just as well have proclaimed the apocalypse had come. Because ‘something’s not right’ could really only mean one thing. And as the tube rattled its way along the tracks one thought reverberated in time with the clicks and clacks.
It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake.
It couldn’t be. The painting she had valued two months ago in Sharjarhere was not a forgery because she double-checked, triple-checked her work. Always. She had to.
Sia bit back the mounting nausea swirling in her stomach. For most art valuers, one or maybe even two forgeries were to be expected. For as well trained as most valuers were, con artists were better, more dedicated, even harder working. They had to be, they got the bigger payout, Sia thought ruefully. Until they were caught.
Sia’s mind veered dramatically away from the last time she had seen her father in jail. The way he had looked at her from across the table in the visiting room of Brixton Prison, a sheen glistening in his eyes, his body angled slightly to the side, Sia couldn’t help but wonder if he’d purposely arranged himself like a Vermeer. As if everything, his whole life—in hers—had been a forgery.
It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake. It’s not a fake.
She ran through the valuation. It had been a bit of a rush as she’d been covering for Sean Johnson, who had fallen ill at the last minute. Even now she felt slightly guilty about the joy she’d felt at having been chosen to replace him and the uncharitable belief that his sickness might have been alcohol-related.
No matter how good she was, how accurate, precise and detailed, she’d been passed over for evaluations like this again and again. At first, she’d put it down to being the newbie. Then she’d put it down to being paranoid. And three years in and still missing out on some of the big jobs? She’d been forced to realise that her—or, more accurately, her father’s—reputation was once again taking its toll on her life.
So she’d been determined to ensure that this valuation was perfect. She’d arrived at the palace in Sharjarhere from Athens, where she’d helped her friend Célia d’Argent and Loukis Liordis with an auction that raised an inconceivable amount for charity. Had she been riding so high on her contribution to the charity that she’d missed something at the palace? She shook her head, drawing a slight frown from a fellow tube passenger, even at such an ungodly hour in the morning.
No, she’d gone through each stage of the valuation process: the signature, the artistic style, the paint, the canvas. She’d removed the frame, checked the backing, the details were all correct—variations in the paint levels and thickness, the blacklight showing nothing untoward.
And her gut. The natural instinct she’d been born with telling her that she was in the presence of a true Etienne Durrántez, one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists. It didn’t matter to Sia that she knew the painting would fetch more than one hundred million pounds. It didn’t matter to her who would spend such an impossible amount of money on the painting. It was the painting itself.
The unknown woman stared at the viewer with that same indefinable sense of inner knowledge as the Mona Lisa. The secret smile of, as appropriately titled, a Woman In Love. The swathe of long dark hair was impressive even to Sia, whose tumble of thick Titian waves were so noticeable she almost always swept them up into a bun at her neck. A slash of red across her lips was worn with pride, not arrogance, confidence, not false bravado, and it had made Sia want to have known the mysterious woman. To understand where her sense of admiration sprung from, not for the painter but the model.
Sia had been so drawn to the painting that there was absolutely no way that it could have been a fake. The signature, the artistic style, the paint, the canvas…she thought, checking through the assessment. And the provenance.
Her breath caught for just a second. She’d not been shown the provenance. Her manager had informed her that she needn’t ask after it because the paperwork had already been forwarded to Sean. And even as she’d begun to question the unusual chain of events she’d heard it. The sigh.
It was one that she’d heard so many times in her three years at Bonnaire’s. She could almost picture her manager now. Overweight, red-cheeked and always slightly sweaty, the man practically defined ‘old boys club’. It was the kind of sigh that would usually precede some kind of patronising comment about her youth, gender, looks or inexperience.
The rage that had roared in her ears had almost blocked out his disappointment in having to remind her that she had been given an opportunity here and instead of making a mountain out of a molehill she should, essentially, keep her pretty mouth shut and get on with it. Yes, he’d actually said that.
And now, as the tube pulled into Goodge Street station, she was mentally kicking herself for toeing the line rather than following her instinct, trusting her gut. Trusting herself.
She held her coat tight against the unseasonal bite of the night-time gust of wind as she picked her way past takeaway boxes and black bin bags towards the back entrance of Bonnaire’s, waved her security pass over the sleek black electric reader and pulled the heavy door open.
Usually, at two-forty-two in the morning the white-walled offices would have been completely empty. But tonight at least fifteen staff were present and through the windows of the glass-lined meeting rooms she could make out at least two company directors, one of whom was shouting into a telephone, the angry words clearly audible from this distance.
Ducking into the stairwell that would take her three floors below ground to the extensive lab that took up an entire level, her heels tapped frantically on the concrete staircase as she ran to where she knew both David and the painting would be.
She ignored the stares of the lab assistants as she went straight to the long bench David used. She glanced to the X-ray room at the back, the red light remaining dark, showing the machine was not in use.
David was at the computer, already going through the images from the infrared and ultraviolet tests before calling up the X-rays. The moment he caught sight of her, he ushered away a few more technicians from where they were staring at the damaged painting and beckoned her over.
The moment she caught sight of the painting she couldn’t help the gasp that fell from her lips. Her instant reaction was shock and horror—red streaks poured down the painting, the consistency of wine, but the alcohol had begun to mix with the paint beneath it. Slashes of what had once been raven-black hair now dribbled down the palest of cheeks and the long silver necklace worn by The Woman in Love now pooled downwards towards the painting’s frame in a way that most definitely wouldn’t have happened if it had been the original painting. The real one. The one that had been valued at over one hundred million pounds.
‘It’s fake,’ she exclaimed.
She collapsed into the chair in front of the painting. ‘This isn’t the painting I valued. David—it’s not. I wouldn’t have made that mistake. Have you checked the photographs from my file?’
David paused before leaning against the table, facing her with a grim expression.
‘I…they haven’t given me access to the file.’
‘But that’s…’ Sia trailed off. ‘How are you supposed to evaluate against the initial assessment?’
‘Sia, look, I think you should know that—’
But Sia wasn’t listening to David. She was looking at the small video capture in the bottom of David’s computer screen.
‘What’s that?’ she interrupted.
David cast her one last concerned look before turning back to his screen.
‘Security footage from the incident. It looks as if two guys got into a bit of a fight near the painting.’
Sia was unable to prevent her hand from pressing against her lips in shock at the sight of the fight that had broken out between the two men, causing a glass of wine to be thrown with unwavering accuracy against the painting.
‘Is that Savior Sabbatino?’
‘Yes, and his brother Santo.’
Sia bit back her shock. The Sabbatino brothers were more likely to be seen on the cover of a scandal rag rather than security footage. The implications of the damage to the painting, the seller and the gallery were beginning to spin beyond the realms of imaginable.
‘Can you go back?’ she asked David of the footage. Something was niggling at her and she couldn’t quite tell what it was. She watched the footage again and again—the wine hitting the painting, the shock rippling out not only from the Sabbatino brothers but the attendees of the private viewing as each person turned their head, watching with horrified fascination the damage to such an expensive piece of…piece of…
There it was again. It was precisely because he was the only person in the whole room who didn’t turn his head. Instead of being drawn to the moment like a driver passing a car accident, he had his back turned and was taking a sip of his drink with something that looked, to Sia, like the ghost of a smile.
It was a man she would have recognised anywhere. Just like any other red-blooded woman, whether or not they had a penchant for billionaires with bad reputations.
Interviewer One: So you immediately suspected Sebastian Rohan deLuen?
Ms Keating: Sheikh Alham Abrani was very clear in his instructions. The painting would never be sold to Seba— Mr Rohan de Luen. He had made many offers to purchase the painting in the last ten years, all of which had been far above the asking price, and had been refused each and every time.
Interviewer Two: Mr Rohan de Luen is a duke, is he not?
Ms Keating: His father was the Duque de Gaeten in Spain before being stripped of his lands. However, because this happened after Seb— after he had been titled at the age of eighteen, he was entitled to the…well, to the title, I suppose.
Interviewer One: But on the night you believe you discovered the painting was a fake, he had not been anywhere near it?
Ms Keating: He was present at the private viewing.
Interviewer Two: But the CCTV footage shows that throughout the entire evening he was nowhere near the painting. In fact he remained behind to give a witness statement to the police, who were called in case any charges were to be brought against the two gentlemen involved in an altercation that damaged the painting.
Ms Keating: Well, he would hardly hold up his hands and say, Me, me—I did it, would he?
Interviewer One: [clears throat] And when you took your concerns to your superiors…?
Sia could feel the nails of her fingers pressing crescents into the softness of her palms and knew they’d leave a mark.
‘But I’ve told you, this is not the painting that I valued in Sharjarhere.’
She’d gone straight from David’s lab to the executive offices, five floors above. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but her manager’s response was not it.
‘Ms Keating. Please, I’d love to hear what is more plausible. That you were mistaken in your valuation or that you valued a true Durrántez, which was then somehow stolen and replaced with a fake painting on the way to Bonnaire’s London gallery, which was then so unlucky as to have been damaged in a one-in-a-million altercation that caused wine to be spilled on it?’
Sia wasn’t stupid. She knew what it looked like, could understand it seemed an almost unbelievable chain of events, but she knew what her gut was telling her. And, she cursed silently, she knew that she would never have valued a fake painting. It was the only thing that her father had given her before his arrest and incarceration. The ability to spot a forgery from a mile away.
‘If I could just share the photographs I took in Sharjarhere with David then—’
‘We have already spoken to Sheikh Abrani, who has apologised profusely for any confusion.’
Sia frowned, because she doubted if the determined, overly confident and deeply arrogant man she had met when evaluating the painting had ever apologised to anyone in his life. There was simply no way he would have admitted to even accidentally attempting to sell a fake Durrántez.
‘The file has been sealed and will remain that way until we can finish our internal investigation. And until then, Ms Keating, you are being placed on suspension, during which time you will not speak to anyone—anyone—of your suspicions. You will have no contact with either Bonnaire’s staff, the press or the Duque de Gaeten.’
The blood drained from Sia’s face. Suspension? No contact with her colleagues? Sealed file? None of this was making any sense whatsoever. She could understand why Bonnaire’s might want to keep the damage of a painting—even a fake one—quiet until they had been in contact with the seller and the prospective buyer. But they had already spoken to Abrani. Everyone had decided that the painting was a fake, but they were wrong. The painting had been stolen, the thief was getting away with it and the only person being punished was her.
Her already dented reputation and her very young career were at stake. Everything that she’d worked so hard for. Everything that she’d fought for.
She closed her eyes, refusing to allow the tears she felt pressing against the back of her eyes to fall in front of her manager. No, she’d learned a long time ago not to let them see her cry.
At first it had been her aunt, who had never liked the fact that her seven-year-old niece was being foisted upon her while her wayward sister lurched from one man to another in the wake of her husband’s imprisonment. The strict, dark and deeply conservative home of Eleanor Lang had been a short sharp shock to a little girl who’d been given pencils and pens and all but told to ‘have at it’ on the walls of her father’s studio. How on earth was a seven-year-old to know that there was a significant difference between the white paper her father had spread across his studio walls and the magnolia paint that covered her aunt’s sitting room and hallway?
After that, it had been the children at school. Her hair would have been target enough had the newspapers not been full of photos of her father—the most notorious art forger in England. Ever. Mothers refused to let their children near her, and teachers eyed her as if she would steal the shoes from their feet if they didn’t watch her closely enough.
And while her aunt had given her food and board, there was little money for anything else. So when Sia hadn’t had her head in her books, feeling an illicit pang as she traced her fingers over images of paintings she had once seen her father delight in copying, she had held down two after-school jobs, knowing that, whatever shape her future would take, it would have to involve university. Because it would have to be proper, it would have to be beyond reproach. It would have to be something that no one could take away from her.
But they had taken it away from her. Even when she’d followed the rules. Done everything perfectly and absolutely right. As the reality of her suspension began to sink in, so did the maths. She might have held down two after-school jobs as a teenager, but her university education had cost her greatly. She had debts of nearly twenty-eight thousand pounds that her position at Bonnaire’s had barely managed to scratch the surface of. And even a month’s suspension could seriously damage her credit history, let alone her housing.
As nausea rose in her stomach, the grainy black and white image of Sebastian Rohan de Luen, smirking into his whisky rose in her mind. She knew that he was involved as sure as she knew a real painting from a fake. And she was going to do whatever it took to prove it.
Interviewer Two: So, despite direct orders from your manager, you approached the Duque de Gaeten.
Interviewer One: [low laugh] And how did that go down?
It had taken Sia less than twenty-four hours to decide her course of action and track him down. The man had a social media page that was as effective as Google Maps, so it wasn’t finding him that had taken the most time. No. It was finding her courage. Her plan was simple. Seduce him, find the painting, steal the painting. Or re-steal it anyway. Sia tucked her morals away on that front. Because surely it couldn’t be illegal if she was returning stolen property?
No, she decided. It wouldn’t. Even if she did benefit from it. Because surely if she returned the painting, the real painting, she would prove that she hadn’t made a mistake and Bonnaire’s would reinstate her. She would prove that she was good at her job.
That she was nothing like her father.
She shook the thought from her head as she approached what looked to be just another row of impossibly rich houses in Mayfair, each fronted with two Ionic columns either side of a sleek, shiny black door with a bronze lion’s head door knocker. In fact, only the door with the large suited man in front was in use as, beyond the door, the partitions between the houses had been knocked down and the entire row had been converted into one of London’s most sought-after private clubs.
When she’d discovered where Sebastian would be she’d known that she’d need help. No way would she have been allowed within fifty feet of the place—even with her surname. But her friend Célia on the other hand… Even before she’d married Greek shipping tycoon Loukis Liordis, Célia had a company with a reputation that would have opened many doors, including this one.
‘Even if I get you in, chérie, you’re going to have to look the part. And, of course, you always look incredible, but you need to look…rich.’
Sia’s heart had sunk a little at her friend’s declaration.
‘This is important, oui?’
Two hours later Sia had walked, wide-eyed, towards the green domed doors of Harrods where she met a lovely woman called Penelope who had been instructed to provide her with a complete outfit, hair and make-up for that evening and discreetly send any bill back to Célia.
She’d spent the next three hours in a complete daze. Dress after dress were given to her to try on, each one more beautiful than the last. When she had first conceived of her hare-brained scheme she had imagined herself in black, her hair pulled back into an efficient bun at the nape of her neck, her make-up simple. Something espionage-ish.
But now, as she looked down at the slash of silk peeking through the rich cashmere coat, she felt a tendril of excitement. Penelope had described the dress as teal and Sia had bitten her tongue. It wasn’t teal at all. The colour was more closely Prussian blue, her—and her father’s—favourite colour. She’d never once worn it, but when she’d seen in the mirror how well it complemented her pale skin and made her light auburn hair glow like gold she’d been speechless.
The stylist had batted Sia’s hands away when she’d insisted on having her hair up and then accused her of committing some great crime, which had made Sia blush more than necessary. So she’d sat back and let him have her way. Sia’s hair had been spun into large, seemingly careless waves that softened features that she’d been told far too many times were ‘strong’ in a way that clearly meant ‘masculine’.
By the time she’d reached the suited man by the sleek black door of Victoriana she’d half convinced herself that all of that preparation had been for nothing and she’d be turned away, despite Célia’s involvement, and was almost breathing a sigh of relief that she could simply go back home and curl up on the sofa, when the man greeted her by name and the door swung open, inviting her in.
She bit her tongue as she was greeted by a young woman dressed in a pair of tweed breeks and a contrasting waistcoat over a white shirt. Sia found herself looking around for a riding crop, such was the effect. Victoriana indeed.
Sia’s coat was taken and she was led down the corridor towards what could have been called a drawing room but was so large that the word simply didn’t do it justice. Along one side was a marble bar that stretched the entire length of the room. Behind it stood barmen and women, dressed similarly to the girl presently guiding Sia towards a seat, who was explaining the different rooms spinning off from the hallway behind, words like library, billiard room, morning room, orangery…all of which disappeared into the gentle hum of the conversations of the people.
Sia soon found herself deposited into a beautiful mahogany stool lined with a worn green leather seat at the bar, in front of a man looking expectantly at her with a broad smile.
‘What’s your poison?’
Sebastian Rohan de Luen, she thought.
The barman interpreted her silence as confusion and pressed on, not unkindly, with another question. ‘What flavours do you like?’
‘Ginger. Rum,’ she decided. Not usually much of a drinker, Sia decided that some Dutch courage wouldn’t go amiss. But she would stop at the one. Because instinctively she knew that she would need all her wits about her.
While the barman created her cocktail Sia scanned the room, trying not to show her surprise at the number of famous faces she saw. A TV star sat with the male model currently gracing Piccadilly Circus’s illuminated advertising boards. A politician was pressing far too closely into someone he really shouldn’t have been, and a news presenter was having a heated debate with a foreign dignitary.
But all of them faded into the background the moment that she caught sight of the tall, dark figure in the far corner of the room, bending slightly as if to hear what the beautiful woman he was talking to was saying.
She had found the Spanish Duke, but felt as if she were the one in the trap—not him.
She couldn’t pull her eyes away. It was as if she’d been set alight and was painfully conscious of everything—the feel of silk against her skin, the gentle hum of voices around her, the way that the light glinted on the large red jewel on the necklace of the woman he was talking to. But, aware as she was of all those things, nothing was more prominent than him.
His profile was powerful. The faint trace of stubble marked a proud jawline, framing his features, and matched the thick waves of burnt umber coloured hair on his head, making her hands twitch reflexively. Even in the shadowed lighting of the corner where he and his companion stood, she could see the almost honeyed colour of his skin, rich and tempting. The exquisite cut of his clearly expensive suit outlined broad shoulders, a flat stomach and firm thighs. And, for the first time in what felt like for ever, she itched for a sketchpad. She wanted to trace the outline of his features, copy them, fill the page with the impression of…
She saw him still. It was an almost imperceptible absence of movement probably unnoticeable to anyone, but she had been so focused on him it blared at her like an alarm.
Unerringly, Sebastian Rohan de Luen, lifted his head and gazed directly into her eyes. Her heart missed its next beat, her breath caught in her throat and she nearly cursed when she saw the same ghost of a smile she recognised from the security footage from Bonnaire’s.
He might be the most handsome man she’d ever seen, he might own a dozen four-star hotels around the world, he might be titled, but he was also the man who had singlehandedly destroyed her career and her future.
And she wasn’t going to let him get away with it.