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Opulence amused Taras Oleksei.

The Dvoryanskoe Gnezdo bled opulence, from the gold walls and plush Persian rugs and the crystal chandeliers. It glittered in the center of Leningrad, the kind of restaurant where people went to see and be seen, the women dressed in silk and furs and jewels and the men wearing the finest winter weight wool suits.

They were slender and soft, those people, complacent in their finery, as if money and material possessions and influence raised them so far above the masses they were untouchable.

That amused Taras, too.

His walk was a saunter and his smile was a smirk as the maitre d’ led him upstairs to the private dining rooms on the second floor. Those rooms were for private matters, dealings not spoken of, nor recorded.

For the occasion, he’d dressed up. Nice suit. Nicer watch. Camouflage, though not much of a disguise.

In face and form, he was hopelessly working class, coarse and pugnacious, thick of jaw and wide of brow, chin slanted and cleft, mismatched eyes and dark hair cropped as close as a convict’s. The suit didn’t hide that he was built like a slaughterhouse butcher, thick chest hard and solid with muscle.

None of that mattered, though, given whose company he was keeping tonight.

Taras had only needed to drop a single name and the maitre d' had whisked him away without question. That was power that had nothing to do with accident of birth, and everything to do with ambition.

He liked the taste of it, as hot and vital as blood.

They stopped at a door.

"Sir," the maitre d' said, knocking once, and upon hearing an answer, opened the door to let Taras in, then closed it behind him.

Inside, the private room was just that, plush, well-appointed, intimately lit, somehow comfortable in spite of the elegance.

A man sat at a rounded table across from the door.

Dark and light, this one, a fine suit and hair of white gold, his features sculpted in ice by the hand of an artist, handsome and refined. As elegant as any other diner, though Taras knew the savage disposition that pulsed under the veneer of aristocracy.

Taras smiled, mildly.

“Nice place,” he remarked.
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