harperkingsley: (Yamiflower)
Harper Kingsley ([personal profile] harperkingsley) wrote2012-09-22 12:33 am

EXCERPT: Altredes, by Lisa Bailey [genhet]

Title: Altredes
Author: Lisa Bailey
Genre: gangster, genhet

Summary: Inspired by Twelfth Night. Sebastian Altredes has always done everything to protect the interests of the Altredes Family. Now Seb must deal with the head of the Mercana Family, the charming and deadly Paul Anthony, a man that is getting far too close to discovering secrets that should not be told.



ALTREDES
by Lisa Bailey

~~ ONE ~~


Seb was feeling a bit sick. The air in the room was tense and somehow muggy from all the anger and mistrust stinking up the meeting.

The Altredes and the Mercana Families had never gotten along, both wutan groups going head to head for the same territory and trying to edge each other out in business deals. Only now they were trying to form an alliance, or at the very least stop actively working against each other.


This was a once in a lifetime meeting and there was no room for mistakes anywhere. Which only made the whole situation that much more tense.


"Would you like some more water, sir?"


Seb glanced at Young Jim. He looked so idealistic that it was faintly sickening. And also very flattering. "If you would."


He smiled and hurriedly reached for the water, filling a glass before carefully setting it down in front of Seb. "There you go, sir."


He was just so young and earnest that she wanted to pat him on the head. "Thank you."


Once he'd backed away, she turned her attention back to the argument taking place at the table. Her father's face was red with anger and aggression; she could see his hands fisting and unfisting just below the edge of the table. He wanted to take someone apart.


The head of the Mercana Family--Paul Anthony--was probably only a few years older than herself and looked incredibly bored as he lounged in his seat at the table. His bodyguards, on the other hand, watched everything with a nerve racking hyper sensitivity. It wouldn't take much for them to have their guns out, shooting anyone that moved.


At least she had Cisero at her shoulder. He was probably the fastest draw she'd ever come across and was frighteningly lethal. So if anything happened, there was a sure chance he would be able to get her and her father out alive.


Not that her father was currently worried about that. He looked like he wanted to leap across the table and throttle Paul Anthony.


It made her sigh quietly and jerk her chin up on her high, stiff collar. She favored a rather severe fashion style that left nearly every inch of her skin covered and gave her what she imagined was a rather dignified mien.


"How dare you suggest such a thing," her father's voice was a low rumble that hurt her ears to hear. She hated when he got angry because sometimes his temper got away from him and even though he was always apologetic afterward... she really hated getting knocked around.


"It's a perfectly logical suggestion," Paul Anthony said, his voice a cold tenor. He was perfectly serious, his eyes sharp behind the lenses of his glasses. "If we share the area, we both come out ahead and it will give us a chance to see if a partnership between our two Families would be worth our time."


Seb flicked her eyes to her father's face. She had to fight to keep from shifting away from him, his tight and angry expression setting off every alarm in her head. He looked like he was about to blow up at any moment and that was really something she didn't want to have to deal with.


"And you want my son in charge of our portion of the deal?" Rickman's hand was clenched so tight that it trembled on his knee.


Seb twitched to full attention, wondering how she had missed such pertinent information. Paul Anthony wanted her to be in charge of the Altredes part of their alliance? Why would he want her to do that?


She narrowed her eyes at him, trying to peer in through his skull.


She knew that she was incredibly focused and skilled at whatever task she was given. But she also knew that she was only twenty years old and there was no way anyone was just going to look at her and think that she was ready for anything as important as what he was proposing.


Which probably meant he wanted her to fail. Which put him firmly on her list of people to watch and be wary of.


"I have heard only good things of him, and since I have decided to handle our end ourselves..." Paul Anthony cocked his head. "You don't think he's ready for that amount of responsibility?"


"I never said that," Rickman said. "I am incredibly proud of my son and know that he would do nothing less than an excellent job. However, I cannot help the suspicion that you have an ulterior motive in wanting to choose him."


The edges of Paul Anthony's lips twitched up. "Your suspicious nature is somehow oddly delightful. I have no ulterior motive." He leaned forward with his elbows on the table, cupping his chin. "He is near to my own age and seeing our relative positions in our two Families, it's obvious that we're going to be working together far into the future. He
is your heir after all, and at some point you will step down and he will be the one I am left partnered with."


Paul Anthony shrugged the shoulders of his expensive pinstriped suit. "Is it any wonder that I would like to start our relationship now?"


Rickman stared at him for a long moment, his expression harsh. Then he threw his head back with a boisterous laugh. "You're a bright spark, aren't you? All right, take my son. He will head up our part of our agreement and we'll share the 13th Territory."


Seb allowed herself to relax a little, though she still stared at Paul Anthony. She had to wonder what he was really thinking, what plan he had percolating in his brain and how he thought he was going to take advantage of her Family.


Everything that she'd heard about Paul Anthony said that he was a shark. Sure, he looked like an expensive lawyer or something, but he had a reputation for being an incredibly dangerous man.


Good with a gun, quick with a knife, and near deadly with his fists. He wasn't the kind of guy she relished the thought of going against. So if he wanted her to partner him in their deal, there was a more than good chance that he thought he could manipulate her into screwing up somehow.


There was no way she was going to let herself trust him at all.

.*. .*. .*.


When he was a teenager a bunch of kids at school had teamed together to label him a sociopath. He could have shrugged off the moniker; instead he embraced it as the basis for his new personality and life.


He didn't go out of his way to make random people miserable. He didn't kick orphans or drown kittens or anything. But he did look out for the interests of the Mercana Family above all else.


Which meant he had no problem with the idea of bringing the Altredes Family down a peg or two. They'd been in charge of their Territory for much too long.


Rickman Altredes was a tough old bird. He'd probably been raised as a child on whiskey and sour milk to make him as sharp as he was. He was not the kind of man anyone wanted to go against.


His son, on the other hand, was a completely different story.


From Paul's research, he'd found out that the kid had been sent off to boarding school with his sister when he was thirteen years old and that's where they'd stayed until they hit eighteen.


Rickman had always been the one to visit them. He'd kept them out of view of his own people and his adversaries alike. Which either showed a powerful protective impulse, or was the act of a man that wanted his kids out of his way more than anything.


Paul was actually kind of curious if Rickman really loved his kids all that much. It was just one of those little perking bits of interest that had him glancing at the kid from under his lashes.


Sebastian Altredes wasn't very tall and he was built lean and oddly breakable looking. He had a rather sharp, triangular shaped face with a nearly cute nose above too thin lips. His skin was papery and fair.


The kid wasn't what anyone would call handsome, but there was something incredibly interesting about his face. And when he glanced up and their eyes met... Paul was shocked by piercing green eyes.


Those eyes combined with the dark brown hair and the smooth fair skin sent a series of features that might otherwise be classified as "okay" right up into the arresting category.


Paul Anthony had planned to use this meeting to weigh and measure Rickman Altredes for the possibility of a future takeover. One glance at the fascinating Sebastian Altredes and he was suggesting an actual partnership.


There was just something about Sebastian Altredes that had caught his interest and he really wanted to find out what it was. And once his curiosity was satisfied, he could go back to his plans of taking over the Altredes Family's Territories and send them spiraling back down into obscurity.


A faintly predatory smile quirked his lips.


If there was one thing he thoroughly enjoyed, it was the idea of winning.

.*. .*. .*.


She could still feel her father's reluctance when she left to meet Paul Anthony alone for the first time. She could tell that he wanted to call her back, to maybe send her to the safety of her room.


Though he'd been the one to instigate the whole "Sebastian" ruse, there were still times when he wanted to treat her like his little princess. But there was no way she was going to let that happen.


He'd talked her into taking her brother's place, and there was no way she was going to let him change his mind now. Not when she was finally starting to enjoy her new identity.


She'd never realized before how differently men were treated than women. There was just more of a sense of power or something and she actually really liked it.


People took her more seriously as Sebastian than they ever had as Sabrina. People looked her in the eye and were more straightforward; all of the flattery and lies stripped away because they thought she would be more able to handle the truth or something.


Whatever the differences, she was really starting to enjoy being Sebastian. Plus, the clothes were actually pretty comfortable.


The fashion she had given herself as Sebastian was something she wouldn't have dared as shy Sabrina. She loved the bold, dark colors and the nearly militaristic folds of her jackets and coats. There was something oddly powerful about knotting her tie in the morning, girding herself in silk armor for war.


Even her father treated her differently. It was as though he sometimes forgot that she was "dear sweet Sabrina" and actually treated her as though she was a strong, independent person with a valuable opinion. It was a strangely heady sensation that she was reluctant to ever give it up.


So to have her father get so worked up at the idea of her partnering up with a rival turned ally, it probably should have really pissed her off. It was like this gigantic step backward with all the progress she'd made.


Instead she couldn't help the silly smile that wanted to quirk her lips. If there was ever a choice between laughing and crying, she would always be the one to pick laughter.


Her father's face was so red and worried looking and some of the things he warned her about were just so patently ridiculous that she simply had to smile.


"What's so funny?" Cisero asked. He was sitting across from her in the back of the limo, his tablet laying across his knees, but his eyes focused completely on her.


She laughed, her eyes sparkling as they met his. "Did you hear my father today? He honestly thinks that Paul Anthony is going to try something with me. Seriously."


"I can see where he's coming from," Cisero said, his mouth making a little moue.


"What are you talking about?" She cocked her head. "He thinks I'm a guy, so I don't really have to worry about him hitting on me or anything."


"Except that I heard he was gay."


"What?" she asked.


"You heard me," Cisero said. "Word on the street is that he's gay. And anyway you slice it, you look like a very attractive man."


Seb could feel her cheeks heating up. "Stop. Why would you even say anything like that?" She'd spent her entire life being the ugly duckling. It was just one of those things that had struck her fast and young and never left her.


Sebastian had been wildly good looking and all the girls had loved him. Sabrina on the other hand... she looked just a bit too masculine to be considered pretty, though personally she didn't think she was even half as pretty as her twin. He really was something.


As a man, she knew that she came across as largely androgynous, her features a little too sharp to be what she considered attractive. It was just one of the sad facts of her life, that as either gender, she just wasn't what anyone was looking for.


She'd come to accept the fact that she would have to focus her life on her career because there was no way she was ever going to find love.


So even knowing that there was no way it could possibly be true, Cisero's suggestion that she was attractive sent a surge of pleasure through her.


"You flatter me," she said, fighting the urge to touch her hot cheeks. "Thank you."


Cisero frowned. "You really are very attractive, and if Paul Anthony really is gay, there's a real chance he might hit on you. Your father has a real reason to worry."


Seb shook her head with a laugh. "You're so funny. You and my father should totally get together and form a club for people suffering from ridiculous fears."


Cisero sighed. It was obvious that Seb didn't believe him, so he would have to make sure she was protected himself, since she wasn't going to do anything to watch herself. She really was too innocent for the real world. It was one of her few true flaws, that and her inability to ever just let things go.


Meanwhile, Seb went back to gazing out her window. She could feel a nervous churning in her belly at the idea of heading into a new situation but there was no way she was going to let her fears control her. Not when her father was expecting her to succeed.

.*. .*. .*.


"I don't quite understand why we're even doing this."


Paul glanced at Andre, quirking his brow. "What do you mean?"


Andre made a face. He was slouched in a chair with his phone in his hand, probably texting his girlfriend. "I thought we were going to bring the Altredes down. So why are we making an alliance with them?"


"What, I'm not allowed to change my mind?" Paul couldn't help smiling. "I saw something that sparked my curiosity, so I'll hold off on my plans until I'm satisfied."


Andre gave him a suspicious look. "We're not all going to end up dead, are we?"


Paul snorted. "Why do you always have to be so negative all the time? We're not going to end up dead. Geez."


"I don't know, one day I'm going to be right. Then what are you going to do?" Andre went back to texting, his thumbs moving quickly.


"You're ridiculous," Paul rolled his eyes. "I don't even know why I bother talking to you at all."


"Because I'm your favorite," Andre said it like it was completely obvious.


"You're my cousin, that's the only reason. If we weren't blood related, it'd be a different story."


"But we
are blood related." Andre didn't look up from his phone and his texting didn't slow.


Paul sighed and glanced at his watch. The Altredes weren't late, but it was a pretty near thing. And if there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was people that weren't punctual and left him waiting when he had things to do.


The office door opened and Brisk ducked his head in. "Hey boss, the Altredes are here."


Paul stood up, tugging the hem of his jacket straight. "Keep them in the main club area. I'll be right there."


He waited an extra two minutes after Brisk left before following him out. He didn't want the Altredes to think that he was too eager. Andre took up his usual position at his left shoulder.


Say what you would about Andre, when it came down to it he knew his business and he knew when it was time to be serious. He also happened to be an excellent shot.


"Don't get all twitchy," Paul advised softly. "The last thing we want is to be the one to start things. If something's going to take place, let them be the one to start it up."


"Then I get to finish it." Andre's grin was wolfish.


"As it may be," Paul said.


The Purple Lion Club was a hostess club. Pretty girls pandering to the whims of men with money, dancing and flirting, but not going any further. Not on company time, anyway. At night it was a rowdy place, but during the day there was only a bare bones serving staff as the Mercana conducted their business. The club was closed to outsiders.


Sebastian Altredes stood with his hands behind his back, his face expressionless. Even in the midst of "enemy" territory, he was completely calm and cool. His two men, one of whom was the legendary Cisero if Paul was correct, were a little more on edge than their boss, but they seemed to be taking things in stride. Which probably meant there was a whole troop of Altredes waiting outside.


Sebastian turned and gave Paul a razor edged smile. "Please treat us well," he said politely, nodding his head.


Paul couldn't help admiring his complete aplomb.


There wasn't much available information about Sebastian Altredes, but he was starting to build himself a reputation as someone to be respected. Paul could see where that was coming from; Sebastian did not look like someone to mess around with, not safely anyway.


Sure, he wasn't the tallest, toughest looking guy, but he had a capable air to him. He came across as though he could run the business end of things with steel pipe brutality, using his soldiers to handle the rough end of things. The rather severe cut to his suit added to the impression.


"You're right on time," Paul said, striding forward to stand a few feet in front of him. "It's good that you were prompt."


The edges of Sebastian's mouth quirked up. "I suppose this is where I say 'thank you'?"


"Be that as it may, are you ready to see the Territory we will be sharing?" Paul asked.


"Of course." Sebastian raised his left eyebrow. "That is the reason why we're here, isn't it?"


"Yes." Paul turned. "Come with me."


Brisk had run ahead to bring the car around and had it idling in front of the doors waiting. Andre hurried forward to hold the door open, every line of his body speaking of an earnest need to please. It made Paul want to roll his eyes as he climbed into the backseat.


When Sebastian didn't immediately get in the car, Paul leaned forward to peer out the door at him. "Get in so we can go."


Sebastian glanced at Cisero, then seemed to sigh and clambered into the back of the car, sitting across from him. Cisero settled next to him. "I suppose if you were going to kill us, you wouldn't do it in your own car."


Paul couldn't help a laugh. "No. I'd make sure we were using
your car if I was going to kill you."


"Thanks. I'm sure my father would appreciate bloodstained upholstery," Sebastian deadpanned, then grinned at Paul's laugh. The car began to move.


"You're funny," Paul said, cocking his head. "That's kind of unexpected."


"What do you mean?" Sebastian frowned, his brows coming together in a single line.


"I don't know," Paul said. "You just don't look like the kind of guy that has any sense of humor."


Sebastian scoffed. "Who are you to talk? You look like someone's accountant."


Andre made a garbled sound and it was only Paul's arm across his chest that kept him from lunging out of the seat at Sebastian. "How dare you talk to him like that!"


"Calm down," Paul said mildly. He gave Sebastian a gentle smile. "So, you think I look like an accountant, do you? Hm."


"Looks are very deceiving, aren't they?" Sebastian said.


Paul looked at the younger man. "Very."


"I thought so. You're secretly a shark, aren't you?" Sebastian shook his head. "Your face is a liar. That's kind of a good trick to play."


"You don't make any sense!" Andre almost yelled.


Paul waved him to silence. "He makes perfect sense if you know what you're listening to. I don't look like a wutan member, do I?" He wagged a finger at Sebastian. "You really look the part though. Do you practice in front of a mirror?"


Sebastian smiled, though it didn't touch his eyes, which blazed green fire. "All the time. That's all I ever do. Practice, practice, practice."


Paul smiled, the genial expression he had practiced in front of a mirror himself. "It works for you. It's no wonder you're going to be the Altredes someday."


Sebastian's smile looked about as honest as his own. "Hopefully I'll do my father proud."


Paul nodded. They understood each other perfectly.


Sebastian Altredes was no one's pushover. But Paul Anthony never lost.


They would use this partnership between their Families to test each other for weaknesses. And neither would hesitate to seize the advantage.


I think I'm going to enjoy this
, Paul thought with a dark satisfaction.

.*. .*. .*.


The 13th Territory was everything she'd read about from the reports. It made her glad to have Cisero at her back because if he hadn't been with her there was a good chance she would have ended up being rolled by some of the rougher sorts roaming around.


"This place needs to be made more civilized to suit my taste," she said, shaking her head.


"You have really high standards, don't you?" Paul Anthony laughed.


She clasped her hands together behind her back as they strolled down the street. His man had stayed with the car, but they'd gone for a walking tour of the area. "I just don't like the thought of people in Altredes Territory living like a bunch of dogs. They'd kill each other for a piece of bread here. It's pathetic."


"Oh, and here I was thinking you felt bad for their living condition. Instead, you just don't like them being so pitiful." Paul Anthony shook his head. "Who would have ever thought you could be so shallow?"


Seb rolled her eyes. "You're secretly really dramatic, aren't you? I just don't like any of my people living like this. I can't do much for anyone outside of our control, but in Altredes Territory... I like to make sure that everyone is living well."


"Hm, I suppose that's an admirable sentiment."


She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, fighting to keep her lip from curling up. "These people belong to me now. It is my duty to ensure that they live well. And in return, I can hope that they will give me faithful service."


"And what, die in the name of Altredes?" Paul Anthony scoffed.


She turned her head to glare at him. "They will
live in the name of Altredes."


He stared at her for a moment, then his lips twitched up. "You really are something, aren't you? Raised on all the stories of honor and loyalty and the power of the Altredes. You must have been born with your head in the clouds to believe so much dribble."


Seb set her jaw and strode ahead.


Her father wanted her to make nice with the Mercana, but he'd been needling her all day. More than anything she wanted to punch him right in his smug face, but she knew better than to be the one to start trouble. Her father wouldn't be pleased.


Still, she couldn't help the writhing anger in her gut that she experienced every time he said a bad word about her Family. She was just too well bred to do anything about it. Right now.

.
.

After scouting out most of the 13th Territory, Paul Anthony insisted they stop in at a place and eat. "To keep our strength up," he'd said with that infuriating smile.


"Fine," she said, following him inside. She could practically
feel Cisero's unease at her back, but she'd already agreed.


Which is how she found herself seated at a low table with Paul Anthony across from her. He looked perfectly at ease ordering for everyone. He didn't even ask her what she liked or wanted.


She sat in stolid silence as the waitress carried in a large tray burdened with plates and bowls. Everything smelled delicious, so she had no real reason to complain except for spite.


"Please, eat," Paul Anthony said, waving at the food in front of them.


Seb wanted to be a jerk and tell him "No," but the food smelled good and she was actually pretty hungry.


"Thank you," she said, beginning to serve herself. Some kind of seared meat, vegetable stir-fry with some kind of brown sauce that glistened under the light, and some spicy picked cucumbers and cabbage. The smell of the food made her mouth water; there was no way she could possibly resist.


While they ate, she glanced around the place.


It was just a hole in the wall, really. If Paul Anthony hadn't led her inside, she wouldn't have been able to tell that the building was a restaurant at all. It had looked so rundown and crumbly that she'd been sure the place was abandoned.


Except here she sat with some truly delicious food in front of her.


"Please, tell the chef that I really enjoyed the food," she told the waitress.


The woman laughed and covered her cheeks with her palms. She was a pretty brunet with dusky skin and eyelashes that brushed her cheeks when she blinked. "Oh, you're so sweet. He'll be so happy you complimented his cooking. He's always just so dramatic all the time and thinking that no one appreciates his food."


"Well, you go right ahead and tell him that his food is delicious and I'll probably be back to try it again," Seb said, nodding his head at her.


"You're so kind. Let me go get you some sweet buns. You'll really enjoy them, I promise."


"Oh, well, thank you." Seb smiled at her, watching as she blushed and hurried off. She looked back at Paul Anthony. "She was very nice."


"You certainly charmed her quick enough," Paul Anthony said. He looked like a king sitting up on his throne, his back perfectly straight and not a single fold of his clothing out of line. He looked as though there was nothing in the world that would ever have him lose his cool. She wasn't too sure that she liked that.


"I just wanted her to give the chef my thanks," Seb said.


"And right now she dreams of you taking her home and taking an enjoyable tumble with her." Paul Anthony didn't quite leer, but her mind insisted on seeing one there.


"You are disgusting," she sneered. "That was a very nice woman and there's no reason for you to be so rude."


He laughed. "Who would have thought an Altredes could be so prudish. It's oddly endearing."


Seb clenched her hand into a fist at her side and fought to maintain her self-control. No one had ever dared to tease her in such a rude fashion. Even when she was at St. Catherine's Academy For Girls everyone had known who her father was and hadn't dared to go against her.


She lifted her teacup and took a quick sip: black tea, no sugar. It was a taste she had forced herself to acquire to better create an air of toughness. Now it had become her personal preference, the sweetness not even something to be missed.


Seb pretended that Paul Anthony's mockery of her had never happened. She still felt frustration eating away at the edges of her mind, but she ignored it for the task at hand. She had a job to do, so whether she liked it or not, she would just have to put up with Paul Anthony's insults.


If this whole deal fell through, it wouldn't be because of her. Paul Anthony would have to screw up first.


The thought of having to stay around him made her stomach twist unpleasantly. He was such a jerk that she was sure her near future was going to be nothing but misery.

.*. .*. .*.


Even knowing it was most likely a mistake, Paul couldn't resist teasing Sebastian. There was just something so amusing about the appalled discomfort and slight blush on that rather expressionless face.


Sebastian gave off this impression that butter wouldn't even melt in his mouth. But even in their brief acquaintance, Paul realized that Sebastian had been kept very sheltered, and now even the smallest of things had him reacting like someone's maiden aunt.


It was very amusing and he could definitely see the possibility for entertainment.


He'd taken on the task of dealing with the Altredes out of duty, so it was kind of a relief to find that he would at least be kept amused while he did it. Sebastian was a fount of teasing material and Paul refused to deny himself.


"What are you looking at?" Sebastian asked with a coolly arched brow. He seemed to sense that Paul was thinking about him and didn't like it.


"I was simply lost in thought," Paul said. He smiled, then couldn't help the surge of amusement when Sebastian seemed put-off by it. "There's really no reason for you to be so entirely defensive."


Sebastian pursed his lips slightly, but didn't say anything. Instead he lifted his tea cup and drained it to the dregs, never once breaking eye contact. He set the cup down with a sharp sound against the table, not quite rude but very pointed.


Paul was unable to resist a slight flare of admiration. He'd always held great respect for those that stood up for themselves.


He folded his napkin and laid it at the side of his plate. "Perhaps it's time for us to go. Have you finished eating?"


"I have," Sebastian said. "We will wait for the sweet buns, then we can leave."


"Ah, you don't want to hurt the lady's delicate feelings," Paul cooed, his lips curving in amusement.


"There is no reason to be rude."


Paul laughed. "You certainly are fun to tease. It makes me glad to have met you."


Sebastian Altredes frowned, his nose wrinkling in disgust. "I do not enjoy being the butt of your jokes."


"Whoever said you were the butt of them?" Paul pouted. "Don't you enjoy my company? I've always been told that I am charming to be around."


Sebastian snorted. "I think you have been made a fool of."


Paul clutched his chest in mock-pain. "Oh, your words wound me so. I feel as though I've been stabbed by a hundred daggers, every one bearing your mark."


"I don't know what to do with you," Sebastian said. His lips were tightly pursed and he looked only seconds away from fleeing the scene.


"I'm sorry," Paul said as sincerely as possible. "I was only teasing. I promise to treat you more seriously from now on. Please don't be angry."


"Whatever." Sebastian looked away. His arms twitched as though he were about to cross them, but he stopped himself.


Watching him, Paul couldn't help thinking that he'd never come across someone so at odds with the impression he gave.


Sebastian Altredes seemed rather straight-laced and stern. His outer appearance was perfectly put together without a single hair out of place. Yet the fire in his eyes when he was even slightly teased showed a very different kind of person inside.


Paul couldn't help wanting to see such a tightly wound person completely lose it. There was just something oddly delightful about poking at Sebastian and seeing him fly off the handle. It was the same behavior that had gotten him in trouble when he was in school, a rather childish habit he'd been unable to break.


"What are you looking at?" Sebastian demanded, just a hint of wariness in his rather light voice.


"I was just thinking," Paul said, unable to resist giving a smirk.


Sebastian gave him a suspicious look. He was probably wondering what devious schemes Paul was coming up with.


No matter what he tried to do, Paul always seemed to give the impression that he was plotting bad things. It was one of his biggest faults and had left him with reams of people giving him suspicious glances. He was great to hang around, but there was no one that wanted to be with him for him. All the friends he had treated him like he was a walking cash machine. They seemed to think that if they said the right words or rubbed him the right way, he would spit out whatever riches they desired.


So it was kind of nice to meet someone of the same social standing and at the same level of wealth. It made Sebastian treat him like just another man. If he won Sebastian over, he could know that it was an honest reaction; no one was trying to win him over for their own benefit.


"Hmph," Sebastian said. He picked up a leftover almond cookie and began breaking it into pieces over his plate. He nibbled on the tiny pieces.


One side of Paul's mouth quirked up. For such an uptight guy, he had a rather childish way of eating snacks. "We've barely even met, yet you act as though I'm the devil or something. What have I ever done to you?"


Sebastian popped the last bite of cookie into his mouth and chewed furiously. "Our Families have feuded for generations. It would be foolish of me to just accept your offer of friendship as completely transparent. And you... under your father's rules you did some truly deplorable things."


Paul couldn't help it; he laughed. "Your honesty must drive your father insane. What can he even do with someone like you?"


Sebastian looked at him for a long time, meeting his grin head on. Finally, his lips trembled a little as though he was fighting a small smile. "You're an impossible man."


"That's what they tell me," Paul said, flashing what he knew was a great smile. He was well-known for his charming grin and his slyly personable manners. It was just that there were some people that thought that was all he was--all bluster with nothing to muster. But he was going to change all the minds that mattered and build up his Family in the wutan world order.


The Altredes were at the top. He was planning on knocking them down a few pegs.


"Here you go, dear sirs," the waitress said, bustling up to the table. She carried a tray with the sweet buns on a dish and two small dessert plates.


Paul idly watched her out of bored eyes. She was reasonably pretty, though her nose was a little big and her upper lip was too thin. Still, she was definitely someone's fantasy girl, appealingly buxom and with a cheery nature.


"Thank you," he said, then watched her walk away. "She's a real asset."


"What?"


Paul looked at Sebastian. "The waitress--she's incredibly charming and I think she's a great asset for this restaurant. I think we should keep her."


Sebastian snorted in surprised amusement. "I thought you were watching her because she was pretty, but instead your mind was totally focused on business. I'm reasonably impressed."


"I'm sure I'm very thankful," Paul said dryly. At Sebastian's suddenly worried look--he was obviously thinking he had made an offensive comment--Paul waggled his eyebrows.


Sebastian gave a sudden spurt of laughter. Paul found himself rather charmed by the sound. It was obvious that Sebastian didn't laugh enough in his life, so Paul felt like he'd won something.


He examined the younger man across the table. There was a sense of humor bottled up beneath the rather severe exterior. It made him wonder what else might have been there.


Sebastian covered his mouth with his fingers. His eyes were wide, as though surprised that he had lost control of himself. It made Paul want to make him laugh again.


Paul used the tongs to place a sweet bun on one of the delicate china plates, then put the plate on the table in front of him. He broke off a bite with his dessert fork. "You should eat. I don't know what I'll do if I have to eat yours as well."


"You would probably gobble it down like a greedy child," Sebastian said, but he helped himself to the second sweet bun.


They ate their dessert in relative silence, Paul saving all of his teasing for later. He could tell from the uneasy look Cisero had shot him that the man was not sure of him. And to a man like that, a good modus operandi was to shoot first and ask questions never.


Cisero was not the kind of man Paul wanted to get on the bad side of. Not unless he had a clear range of fire and the higher ground. Then it might be an even confrontation.


If there was one thing to say about the Altredes' it was that they had some of the best, most loyal talent around. It was something to admire, if it didn't go against Paul's long term goal.