Ruthless Magnate, Convenient Wife

By: Lynne Graham
Chapter One

OIL billionaire, Sergei Antonovich, travelled behind tinted windows in a big black glossy four-wheel drive. Two car-loads of bodyguards flanked him, in front and behind. Such a sight was worthy of note en route to a remote Russian village like Tsokhrai. But everyone who saw the cavalcade pass knew exactly who it was, for Sergei’s grandmother was well known locally, and her grandson always visited her on Easter Day.

Sergei was looking at the road that he had turned from a dirt track into a broad highway to facilitate the transportation needs of the coach-building factory he had set up to provide employment in this rural area. In the winters, when once he had lived here, the road had been thick with mud and often impassable by anything more sophisticated than a farm cart. When it had snowed, the village had been cut off for weeks on end. Sometimes even Sergei still found it hard to believe that he had spent several years of his adolescence in Tsokhrai, where he had suffered the pure culture shock of an urban tearaway plunged into a rustic nightmare of clean country living. At the age of thirteen, he had been six feet tall, a gang member and embryo thug, accustomed to breaking the law just to survive. His grandmother, Yelena, had been barely five feet tall, functionally illiterate and desperately poor. Yet Sergei knew that everything he had become and everything he had achieved in the years since then was down to the indefatigable efforts of that little woman to civilise him.

The convoy came to a halt outside a humble building clad in faded clapboards and sheltering behind an overgrown hedge. The bodyguards, big tough men who wore sunglasses even on dull days and never smiled, leapt out first to check out the area. Sergei finally emerged, a sartorial vision of elegant grooming in a silk and mohair blend suit that was superbly tailored to his broad-shouldered powerful physique. His ex-wife, Rozalina, had called this his ‘annual guilt pilgrimage’ and had refused to accompany him. But his visit was enough reward for the elderly woman who would not even let him build her a new house. Yelena, Sergei reflected grimly, was the only female he had ever met who wasn’t eager to take him for every ruble she could get. He had long since decided that extreme greed and an overriding need to lionise over others were essentially feminine failings.

As Sergei strode down the front path towards the dwelling, villagers fell back from where they were gathered in its doorway and an awe-inspired silence fell. Yelena was a small plump woman in her seventies with bright eyes and a no-nonsense manner. She greeted him without fuss, only the huskiness of her voice and her use of the diminutive name ‘Seryozh’ for him hinting at how much her only grandchild meant to her.

‘As always you are alone,’ Yelena lamented, guiding him over to the table, which was spread with a feast of food to satisfy those who had just finished practising a forty-day fast in honour of the season. ‘Eat up.’

Sergei frowned. ‘I haven’t been—’

His grandmother began to fill a large plate for him. ‘Do you think I don’t know that?’

The bearded Orthodox priest sitting at the table, which was decorated with flowers and painted eggs, gave the younger man who had rebuilt the crumbling church tower an encouraging smile. ‘Eat up,’ he urged.

Sergei had skipped breakfast in anticipation of the usual gastronomic challenge that awaited him. He ate with appetite, sampling the special bread and the Easter cake. Throughout, he was approached by his grandmother’s visitors and he listened patiently to requests for advice, support and money, because he was also the recognised source of philanthropy in the community.

Yelena stood by watching and concealing her pride. She was wryly aware that her grandson was the cynosure of attention for every young woman in the room. That was understandable: his hard-boned dark features were strikingly handsome and he stood six feet three inches tall with the lean powerful build of an athlete. As always, however, Sergei was too accustomed to female interest to be anything other than indifferent to it. His grandmother had a fleeting recollection of the lovelorn girls who had dogged his every step while he was still a boy. Nothing had changed; Sergei still enjoyed an extraordinary level of charisma.

Sergei was mildly irritated by his female audience and wondered how much Yelena had had to do with the surprising number of attractive well-groomed young women milling about. His concentration, however, had only to alight on his grandmother, though, for it to occur to him that she looked a little older and wearier every time he saw her. He knew she was disappointed that he had failed to bring a girl home with him. But the women who satisfied his white-hot libido in his various homes round the world were not the type he would have chosen to introduce to a devout old lady. He recognised that she was desperate to see him marry and produce a family. It would have surprised many, who saw Sergei solely as an arrogant, notoriously cold-blooded businessman, to learn that he actually believed that he owed it to Yelena to give her what she wanted.