A Rich Man's Whim - By Lynne Graham

CHAPTER ONE

MIKHAIL KUSNIROVICH, RUSSIAN oil oligarch and much feared business magnate, relaxed his big body back into his leather office chair and surveyed his best friend, Luka Volkov, with astonishment. ‘Hiking … seriously? That’s truly how you want to spend your stag weekend away?’

‘Well, we’ve already had the party and that was a little high octane for me,’ Luka confided, his good-natured face tightening with distaste at the memory. Of medium height and stocky build, he was a university lecturer and the much admired author of a recent book on quantum physics.

‘You can blame your future brother-in-law for that,’ Mikhail reminded him drily, thinking of the lap and pole dancers hired by Peter Gregory for the occasion, women so far removed from his shy academic friend’s experience that the arrival of a group of terrorists at the festivities would have been more welcome.

‘Peter meant it for the best,’ Luka proclaimed, instantly springing to the defence of his bride’s obnoxious banker brother.

Mikhail’s brow raised, his lean, darkly handsome face grim. ‘Even though I warned him that you wouldn’t like it?’

Luka reddened. ‘He does try; he just doesn’t always get it right.’

Mikhail said nothing because he was thinking with regret of how much Luka had changed since he had got engaged to Suzie Gregory. Although the two men had little in common except their Russian heritage, they had been friends since they met at Cambridge University. In those days, Luka would have had no problem declaring that a man as crude, boring and boastful as Peter Gregory was a waste of space. But now Luka could no longer call a spade a spade and always paid subservient regard to his fiancée’s feelings. An alpha male to the core, Mikhail gritted his even white teeth in disgust. He would never marry. He was never going to change who and what he was to please some woman. The very idea was a challenge for a male raised by a man whose favourite saying had been, ‘a chicken is not a bird and a woman is not a person’. The late Leonid Kusnirovich had been fond of reeling that off to inflame the sensibilities of the refined English nanny he had hired to take care of his only son. Sexist, brutal and always insensitive, Leonid had been outraged by the nanny’s gentle approach to child rearing and had been afraid that she might turn his son into a wimp. But at the age of thirty there was nothing remotely wimpy about Mikhail’s six-foot-five-inch powerfully built frame, his ruthless drive to succeed or his famous appetite for a large and varied diet of women.

‘You’d like the Lake District … it’s beautiful,’ Luka declared.

Mikhail made a massive effort not to look as pained as he felt. ‘You want to go hiking in the Lake District? I assumed you were thinking of Siberia—’

‘I can’t get enough time off work and I’m not sure I’d be up to the challenge of the elements there,’ Luka admitted, patting his slight paunch in apology. ‘I’m not half as fit as you are. England in the spring and a gentle workout is more my style. But could you get by without your limo, luxury lifestyle and your fleet of minders for a couple of days?’

Mikhail went nowhere without a team of security guards. He frowned, not at the prospect of existing without the luxuries, but at having to convince his protection team that he didn’t need them for forty eight hours. Stas, his highly protective head of security, had been taking care of Mikhail since he was a little boy. ‘Of course, I can do it,’ he responded with innate assurance. ‘And a little deprivation will do me good.’

‘You’ll have to leave your collection of cell phones behind as well,’ Luka dared.

Mikhail stiffened in dismay. ‘But why?’

‘You won’t stop cutting deals if you still have the phones in tow,’ Luka pointed out, well aware of his friend’s workaholic ways. ‘I don’t fancy standing on top of a mountain somewhere shivering while you consider share prices. I know what you’re like.’

‘If that’s really what you want, I’ll consider it,’ Mikhail conceded grudgingly, knowing he would sooner cut off his right arm than remove himself, even temporarily, from his vast business empire. Even so, although he rarely took time out from work, the concept of even a small physical challenge had considerable appeal for him.

A knock on the door prefaced the appearance of a tall beauty in her twenties with a mane of pale blonde