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Sebastian Roth lived alone, in the palace of a self-made man. His Pimlico house, valued at?2.4 million, was actually two properties knocked together, with staircases at opposite ends of the building, like reflections of one another. He had bought both houses as ruined shells, and their conversion, including the construction of a 40 ft swimming pool in the basement, had taken eighteen months, a period in which Roth had lived in a suite at the Lanesborough Hotel whenever he was not travelling abroad.

He had no wish to share his life with a woman, and yet he longed for the diversionary pleasure of an affair, something to distract him from the relentless tide and pressure of work. Since adolescence, Roth had designed his life as a series of obstacles to be overcome: win that award; make that first million; buy that rival’s company. The moral or social implications of his behaviour rarely troubled him. He simply did not calculate into any decision the possible repercussions for those around him. His was an almost sociopathic indifference. He would do as he pleased, and deny himself nothing. A man in such a position, anointed with the twin blessings of private wealth and perpetual cunning, can begin to feel untouchable, as if no harm can befall him. If Roth was vain, he did not recognize it; if he was cruel or mendacious, he did not care. The arc of his life was aimed solely at the pursuit of his own pleasure.

As he was shaking her hand at the funeral, he had resolved to sleep with Alice Keen. It was as simple as that. This was just a challenge, something to lighten his days, the thrill of which would be derived as much in the planning as in the final seduction itself. The long, pale drawing room on the first floor of Roth’s house was scattered with deep suede sofas and expensive works of art. In the corner nestled a Bang & Olufsen hi-fi, in the wall a widescreen digital TV. Yet he no longer derived pleasure from them. Studying a prospectus for investments in St Petersburg, looking at spreadsheets for the Moscow operation, he cast his work to one side and busied himself with the first components of a plan. He would lure Alice with the promise of contacts and scoops, gradually allowing their relationship to assume a more personal character as her career thrived. At the funeral, he had witnessed the sheer opportunism in her eyes, a throttling ambition concealed by the trick of beauty. She was too good for Ben, Roth decided, and gave no further thought to their marriage. His only concern was that it would all prove too easy. His only dread was that his boredom might last.

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