Lauren speaks up, “I’d been thinking about studying abroad for a while, but I could never find the right place or program. When my sister Kat mentioned Vutreila and how much she and Greg loved it here, they phoned your dad, and he was kind enough to invite me. He insisted that I take a gap year from college and get a first-hand education of the Baltics right here in Vutreila.”
“Did he now?” Amusement rings in my brother’s voice. “Valter sent the two of us to prep school and university in England. Here I thought writing big fat donation checks was his only involvement in education.”
Blush crawls up her neck. “Your father wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’s insistent.”
“Well, if he had, you’d be the first.” Wystan tips his glass in her direction.
Our meal arrives and my father indulges us in his usual conversation of politics and business. Throughout the evening, club members filter over to the table.
Lauren looks bored.
The night crawls by in a haze of smoke and liquor. We move from the private dining room to the club lounge, where conversation bounces off the dark paneled walls, soaring ceilings, and hardwood floors.
Lauren lingers at my father’s side making effortless small talk and wooing dozens of unsavory people.
After the evening ends, Marek, my head of security, takes me back to my estate. Normally at this hour, I’d just stay at the Aldon, but I feel like I’ve spent way too much time there lately.
When I push through the front door, Luka lifts his head from the rug in the foyer. “Hey there, Luka.” He nuzzles his head into my hands. “I missed you, too, buddy.”
As Luka stands and stretches, I grab the leash off the wall and then clip it to his collar. We walk outside so he can relieve himself, and I nod to Tannil. Given the hour, I know that this is his second perimeter sweep during his shift.
“How’s it going, sir?” he asks, flicking the ash from his cigarette onto the frozen ground.
“It’s been a long night. And you?”
“Won some money earlier,” he informs before taking a long drag. “The men really enjoy the gambling.”
We renovated part of the stables years back to accommodate living quarters and a shared club space for the guards when they stay here. It keeps morale and loyalty extremely high.
“I’m glad. You can always drop your money at the casino. I’ll happily take it.”
He smirks. “I know you would, sir. Have a good night.”
Once Luka finished sniffing around the yard, we walk back inside. I slip the leash off Luka’s collar, and he trots back toward the kitchen.
The wood creaks beneath my shoes as I walk toward my study.
“Shoes off, young man.” Dorel scowls at me from the hallway.
I hold my hands up in the air. “Fine. Fine. Don’t shoot.”
“I will if you’ve stained the rugs. I just had them cleaned.”
Dorel’s been my house manager since I bought the place. But I’ve known her practically all my life.
“They’re off now. Happy?”
Ignoring my question, she strides back to her room, cursing under her breath the entire way.
I grab the decanter of vodka and pour a glass. Powering up my laptop, I spend a few hours combing the internet for any scrap of information about this woman. It’s like she appeared out of thin air.
No social media footprint.
No university records.
Slumping into a lounge chair, I search for Lauren Bainbridge in Chicago. Nothing comes up. Bizarre doesn’t even begin to cover the scenario.
Who are you, Lauren Bainbridge?