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RUY VALIENTE, THE reclusive billionaire owner of Valiente Capital, one of the world’s largest and most successful hedge funds, didn’t immediately answer his mobile when it pulsed in his pocket.
Why? He was in a great mood, happily contemplating a few weeks off finance and the opportunity to indulge in his secret passion. Those breaks were both rare and precious in his life because he had been brought up to be enormously disciplined and do his duty. He was also in transit to his rural English home, which he planned to make his very private bolt-hole. When he finally grudgingly drew out the phone, bearing in mind that a call to his personal number—known to few—could be an emergency, he was reassured when he saw his half-sister, Cecile’s name flash up.
In his rigorously conservative, judgemental circle of relations, Cecile was just about the only one he could stomach, and it was to her that he owed the discovery of his new home, he reminded himself as he answered.
‘I need your help,’ Cecile told him without any preamble. ‘And I know it’s a dreadful imposition and that when you’re moving into a house only a couple of miles away from Charles and me you will now suspect that we’re going to be a nuisance—’
Ruy smiled. ‘That thought would never occur to me.’
‘Where are you?’ she asked.
‘Ten minutes from my new house.’
‘Oh, good. Charles and I are stuck in a jam on the motorway. We were on our way home early to see the girls perform in their spring concert,’ she told him. ‘But we’re not going to make it in time.’
‘That’s unfortunate.’ Ruy was sympathetic because his sister and her husband were medics, whom he knew often struggled to combine work and family commitments. ‘How can I help?’
‘Lola and Lucia will be devastated when we don’t turn up. They’ve been rehearsing their performance for weeks,’ Cecile told him tautly. ‘I know it’s a very big ask, Ruy, because it’s not your sort of thing, but if you could show up in our stead it would mean a lot to the girls. In fact, your appearance would be much more exciting than ours. Tio Ruy is hugely popular with them. The concert is in the village hall and it’s already started. Luckily, the girls are in the very last act. Can you make it?’
Ruy swallowed every one of the objections brimming on his lips and murmured, ‘Of course I can,’ because it was the very first time his half-sister had asked him for anything.
All the rest of his relatives maintained a constant barrage of requests for money, jobs, help with legal and family problems—indeed every bump in the road of their lives from disease to divorce inspired their urgent pleas for assistance. Of course, his late father, Armando, had encouraged that dependency on the head of the Valiente family because it had fed his love of power and a subservient audience, but Ruy found that same steady stream of demands exasperating and was gradually doing what he could to discourage his relations from the habit.
‘You…will?’ Cecile could hide neither the relief nor the surprise in her response. ‘You won’t need to take the girls home or anything. Their nanny is with them. All you have to do is show your face and give them a hug afterwards and obviously lie when Lola asks how she did because she’s like a baby elephant on stage…bless her! It shouldn’t take more than an hour of your time.’
‘It’s fine, Cecile.’
‘But this is your first visit to your new home and I’m totally invading your privacy,’ she protested guiltily.
‘I’m not that inflexible,’ he assured her soothingly, although he knew that he was lying out of courtesy. He had learned the hard way over his thirty years that if he didn’t ruthlessly carve out the time for his art from his incredibly demanding schedule in the world of investment, he didn’t get any time to do what he most enjoyed. ‘It will be good to see the girls.’
‘If you would only agree to visit us more often…sorry, in a moany mood here,’ Cecile mumbled apologetically, knowing that she was crossing his boundaries.
Ruy was very much a loner who cherished his privacy, a privilege he saw little of in the real world where he was invariably surrounded by staff. Employees waited on him hand and foot and hung on his every word and, all credit to him, he was aware that his lifestyle was far from normal. He was also rather more painfully aware that his twin brother, Rodrigo, his junior only by a matter of minutes, was consumed by envy, resentment and bitterness that he had not been the firstborn son, on whom all Armando Valiente’s brightest hopes and expectations rested. It was a terrible ironic truth that Ruy would have very much preferred the far less demanding role of younger son and brother. And it struck him as even worse that his brother had asked him to his wedding to take place in a fortnight and that he was dreading the event, unable to unquestioningly accept that the invitation could be an olive branch.
The community hall beside the church was an old shabby building in need of a facelift, Ruy registered. He would consider making an anonymous donation. Philanthropic gestures came naturally to a man who had never in his life had to consider the cost of anything. It would also be the first time that Ruy actually set foot in the village near the property he had bought. There wasn’t much to the place: a garage, a little supermarket and, opposite the church, a pub with a big flashy sign that said it had pretensions to be something more. On his one previous visit, he had driven through the village without stopping because it didn’t interest him. He had no plans to get to know anyone in the neighbourhood, a decision that would protect the anonymity he treasured.
There were no empty seats available in the packed hall, which suited Ruy fine. He stationed himself by the back wall, his height of six feet four granting him an excellent view of the small stage, which was currently in darkness. Strange plinky-plonky music notes filtered out, the kind of New Age stuff that made Ruy, who liked rock ballads, wince. A low light came on above the silhouette of a woman kneeling with her head bent. Unexpected interest fired in him as the music swelled and the woman began to unfold. Like a flower in one of those sped up nature documentaries, he thought abstractedly.
As her arms lifted in a fluid shimmy, she leant back, seemingly as flexible as rubber, her long hair fluttering, her small full breasts jutting up, her body bending back in a natural curve. Ruy was riveted to the spot, only dimly aware of the children, crouched like little mushrooms awaiting their moment in the darkness, to either side of her. It was modern dance, again something he had no interest in, but the innocent sensuality of her every move captured him as both a man and an artist. She slowly rose upright, hands moving like silent poetry, her grace phenomenal and that fast he knew he had to find out who she was, knew he had to paint her.
‘She’s a firecracker,’ a male voice commented next to him. ‘A beauty.’
‘Who is she?’ Ruy didn’t know whether or not she was a beauty because her entire performance had taken place in shadow; as if she were part of the backdrop and not the centre of the show, which would definitely be wishful thinking on her part if that had been the intention, he reflected with wry amusement, considering that she was the most eye-catching sight he had enjoyed in a very long time.
‘Suzy Madderton, publican’s daughter, well and truly off the market if you’re interested.’
‘I wasn’t,’ Ruy asserted, unusual colour slashing his high cheekbones because he was shamed by the throb at his groin in a place where children were present, even though in the darkness nobody could have seen or noticed his condition.
‘Heard she’s getting hitched soon and to a golden oldie, not a young chap like yourself…know what I mean,’ the older man imparted. ‘Local businessman, owns half the village…a crying shame her ending up with him!’
Ruy said nothing, too cynical after the life he had led to think it even remotely strange that a young and apparently beautiful woman would marry an older man for his money. His only concern was whether or not he could get her to model for him, and if money were a magnet that would be his ‘in’.
He wouldn’t touch a gold-digger with a bargepole, not that he had any personal interest in the dancer. A natural male response to a sensual performance was no proof of attraction, he assured himself. After all, sex was no big deal to Ruy and hadn’t been in a long time. Casual sex was easily available to him and he hadn’t been on a date in longer than he could recall. Love was anathema to him because he had witnessed and experienced how warped and damaged love could become. Someone like his former sister-in-law, Liliana, could get badly burned by that seemingly desirable emotion of love that so many foolish beings chased. Old unforgotten guilt burned in Ruy’s gut as he watched his nieces dance across the stage as very cute little mushrooms. Lucia was sylph-like in comparison to poor little Lola, who stomped like a water buffalo. Slowly, almost painfully, Ruy smiled, reflecting that if it didn’t entail getting married, he would have enjoyed having a child of his own…