In the cutthroat world of Sweden's financial elite, no one knows that better than corporate raider David Hammar. Ruthless. Notorious. Unstoppable. He's out to hijack the ultimate prize, Investum. After years of planning, all the players are in place; he needs just one member of the aristocratic owning family on his side-Natalia De la Grip.
Elegant, brilliant, driven to succeed in a man's world, Natalia is curious about David's unexpected invitation to lunch. Everyone knows that he is rich, dangerous, unethical; she soon discovers he is also deeply scarred.
The attraction between these two is impossible, but the long Swedish nights unfold an affair that will bring to light shocking secrets, forever alter a family, and force both Natalia and David to confront their innermost fears and desires.
About the Author
Simona Ahrnstedt was born in Prague and is a licensed psychologist, a cognitive behavioral therapist, and most importantly, a bestselling author. As her novels have swept bestseller lists in her native Sweden, she has become a spokesperson for books by women, for women, and about women. Her provocative women’s fiction has been sold in multiple languages as well as audio format. She lives outside of Stockholm, Sweden, with her two teenagers.
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By Simona Ahrnstedt, Tara Chace
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Simona Ahrnstedt
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, June 25
David Hammar peered out the domed window of the helicopter. They were a thousand feet over the Swedish countryside and could see about twenty-five miles. He adjusted the headset that let him speak to the other occupants in a normal conversational voice.
"Over there," he said, turning around to face Michel Chamoun, who was sitting in the backseat and also looking out the window. David pointed to the yellow Gyllgarn Castle as it came into view.
The pilot, Tom Lexington, set the course. "How close do you want me to take you?" he asked, his eyes on the destination.
"Not too close, Tom. Just so we can see it a little better." David didn't take his eyes off the castle. "I don't want to attract any unnecessary attention."
Green meadows, glittering lakes, and thick woods spread out before and beneath them like an idyllic pastoral landscape painting. The castle itself was built on an islet in the middle of an unusually wide river. Lively water rushed past on both sides of the islet, forming a natural moat that had at one time provided genuine protection against enemies.
Tom swung the helicopter in a wide arc.
Horses and sheep grazed in the fields below them. An avenue lined with enormous oak trees, several hundred years old, led in from the country road. The well-tended fruit trees and colorful plantings surrounding the beautiful castle were visible even from this height.
It looks like a fucking paradise.
"The realtor I talked to estimated the value of the building alone at over thirty million Swedish kronor," David said.
"That's a lot of money," Michel noted.
"And that's in addition to the forest and pastureland. And the waterways. There's thousands of acres of land and water. That alone is worth over two hundred." David kept listing off the assets. "There's game in the forest and countless smaller buildings that are part of the estate. And then there are the furnishings, of course, the fifteenth-century war trophies, the fancy silver and Russian porcelain, and an art collection that includes pieces from the last three hundred years. All the auction houses in the world will be fighting over them."
David turned around in his seat. Michel studied the yellow castle they were hovering over.
"And it's all owned by the company?" Michel asked incredulously. "Not by the family?"
David nodded in confirmation. "It's unbelievable that they chose to do that," he agreed. "That's what happens when people think they're invincible."
"No one is invincible," said Michel.
Michel looked out the window. David waited as his friend's dark eyes swept over the fields. "It's a national gem," Michel continued. "If we parcel this up and sell it all off, there'll be a real outcry."
"Not if," David said. "When."
Because they were going to do just that, he was sure of it. They would subdivide those fertile fields and sell them off to the highest bidders. People would complain, and no one would scream louder than the current owners. He smiled faintly at the thought of them and gave Michel a questioning look. "Have you seen enough?"
Michel nodded, and David said, "Can you take us back to the city, Tom? We're done here."
Tom nodded. The helicopter made an elegant turn and rose. They left the idyllic scene behind them and headed back to Stockholm. Highways, forests, and factories passed by beneath them.
Fifteen minutes later they entered the capital city's air-control zone, and Tom started talking to the control tower in Bromma. David half-listened to the conversation and the short, standardized phrases.
"... 1,500 feet, request full stop landing, three persons onboard."
"Approved, straight-in landing, runway three zero ..."
Tom Lexington was a skillful pilot. He maneuvered the helicopter with calm movements and a watchful eye. In his day job he worked for a private firm that, among other things, managed the security for Hammar Capital. He and David had known each other for a long time. David counted him as one of his best friends, and when David decided to inspect the castle from the air Tom had volunteered his piloting skills and his time.
"I appreciate your flying us," David said.
Tom didn't say anything, just nodded almost imperceptibly to acknowledge he'd heard.
David turned to Michel. "We have plenty of time before the board meeting," he said with a glance at his watch. "Malin called. Everything is ready," he continued, referring to Malin Theselius, their communications director.
Michel adjusted his big, muscular, suit-clad body in the backseat. The rings on his fingers sparkled as he scratched his shaved scalp. "They're going to skin you alive," he said as Stockholm passed a thousand feet below them. "You know that, right?"
"Us," David said.
Michel smiled wryly. "Nah, you. You're the cover boy and the evil venture capitalist. I'm just a poor Lebanese immigrant following orders."
Michel was the smartest man David knew and a senior partner in David's firm, Hammar Capital. Soon they would entirely rewrite Sweden's financial map. But Michel was right. David, the founder, who had a reputation for being hard and arrogant, was going to be hung out to dry in the financial press. And he was kind of looking forward to it.
Michel yawned. "When this is over I'm going to take a vacation and sleep for at least a week."
David turned to look back again, peering at the suburbs in the distance. He wasn't tired, quite the contrary. He had been preparing for this fight for half his life, and he didn't want a vacation. He wanted war.
They had been planning this latest battle for almost a year. It was the biggest deal Hammar Capital had ever done, a hostile takeover of an enormous corporation, and the next few weeks would be critical. No one had ever done anything like this.
"What are you thinking?" David said into his headset. He knew Michel inside and out, knew his silence meant something, that Michel's keen mind was working on some legal or financial detail.
"Mostly that it's going to be hard to keep this secret much longer. Someone must have started wondering about the movements on the stock market. It won't be long before someone — a stockbroker maybe — starts leaking to the press."
"Yes," David agreed, because things leaked all the time. "We'll keep it under wraps as long as we can," he said. They'd had this discussion many times. They'd polished their arguments, searched for holes in their logic, grown stronger and more cunning. "We'll keep buying," he said. "But just a little at a time, less than before. I'll talk to my contacts."
"The price of the shares is starting to rise quickly now."
"I saw that," David said. The curve of the share prices looked like a wave. "We'll have to see how long it holds financially."
It was always a balancing act how fast you could proceed. The more aggressively a company's shares were traded, the more the action drove the price up. If word got out that Hammar Capital was the one doing the buying — then the rate would bolt. So far they had been exceedingly cautious. They had bought through reliable dummy companies and only in small quantities, day in and day out. Small transactions that were no more than a ripple on the enormous surface of the stock market. But both he and Michel realized that they were nearing a critical threshold.
"Of course, we knew we were going to be forced to go public with this sooner or later," David said. "Malin has been working on the press release for weeks."
"It's going to be insane," Michel said.
David smiled. "I know. All we can do is hope we can fly under the radar for a little while longer," he said.
Michel nodded. After all, this was what Hammar Capital did. Their team of analysts searched for companies that weren't doing as well as they should be. David and Michel identified the problems — often incompetent leadership — and then vacuumed up shares in order to put together a majority holding.
Then they went in, brutally took over, broke the company into pieces and restructured, sold, and profited. They were better at this than almost anyone else — owning and improving. Sometimes it went smoothly. People cooperated, and Hammar Capital was able to drive its agenda. Sometimes there was a fight.
"I'd still like to get someone from the owning family on our side," David said as southern Stockholm spread out beneath them.
Having one or more of the big shareholders, some of the giant retirement fund managers, for example, on your side was critical for success in a hostile takeover this big. David and Michel had spent a lot of time convincing the managers, attended endless meetings, and run the numbers countless times. But winning over someone from the actual owning family had several advantages. In part, it would be an enormously prestigious symbolic win, especially with this firm, Investum, one of Sweden's biggest and oldest companies. It would also automatically win over a number of other shareholders who would vote in favor of Hammar Capital if David and Michel could show that they had someone from the inner circle on their side. "It would make the process a lot easier," he continued.
"There is one person who actually has gone her own way in that family," said David as Bromma Airport came into view on the horizon.
Michel was quiet for a bit. "You mean the daughter, right?"
"Yes," David said. "She's an unknown but considered to be quite the talent. It's possible that she's dissatisfied with how the men are treating her." Investum wasn't just an old and traditional company. It was patriarchal in a way that would make the 1950s seem modern and enlightened.
"Do you really believe you can win over anyone from that family?" Michel asked hesitantly. "You're not exactly popular with them."
David almost laughed at the understatement.
Investum was controlled by the De la Grip family, and the company did billions of kronor worth of business a day. Indirectly Investum, and thus the De la Grip family, controlled close to a tenth of Sweden's GNP and owned the biggest bank in the country. Family members sat on the board of directors of close to every major Swedish company. The De la Grip family was upper-class, traditional, and wealthy. As close to royalty as you could get without actually being royal. And with significantly bluer blood than any member of the House of Bernadotte, Sweden's royal family. It would be unlikely for David Hammar, the upstart, to get anyone from the innermost circle — known for their loyalty — to change sides and join him, an infamous venture capitalist and corporate raider.
But he'd done it before, convinced a few family members to join forces with him. That often meant leaving a trail of broken family ties behind him, which he usually regretted, but in this case it would be a welcome bonus.
"I'm going to try," he said.
"That's damn near insane," said Michel. It wasn't the first time in the last year he'd uttered those words.
David nodded briefly. "I already called to set up a lunch meeting with her."
"Of course you did," said Michel as the helicopter started its descent for landing. The flight had taken less than thirty minutes. "And what did she say?"
David thought about the cool voice he'd gotten on the line, not an assistant's but that of Natalia De la Grip herself. She had sounded surprised but hadn't said very much, just thanked him for the invitation, and then had her assistant confirm the lunch appointment by e-mail.
"She said she was looking forward to our meeting."
David laughed, tersely and joylessly. Her voice had been distinctive in that patrician way that almost inevitably triggered his disdain for the upper classes. Natalia De la Grip was one of about a hundred women in Sweden who had been born with the title of countess, the elite of the elite. He hardly had the words to express how little he thought of that kind of person.
"No," he said. "She didn't say that." But then he hadn't expected her to, either.CHAPTER 2
Thursday, June 26
Natalia searched through the stacks of paper on her desk. She pulled out a page of tables and numbers.
"Aha!" she said, waving the piece of paper around. She directed a look of triumph at the platinum-blond woman sitting on the little visitor's chair, which didn't actually fit in the cubbyhole that constituted Natalia's office. Natalia's friend, Åsa Bjelke, peered at the piece of paper with little interest before she went back to examining her pale fingernail polish. Natalia studied the mess on her desk and continued searching. She hated disorder, but it was almost impossible to keep this small workspace tidy.
"How are you really doing?" Åsa asked, taking a sip of the coffee she'd picked up on her way over and watching Natalia go back to searching the stacks of paper. "I'm only asking because you seem really unfocused," she continued. "And while you do have a lot of quirks, lack of focus isn't usually one of them. I've never seen you like this."
Natalia furrowed her brow. An important document was gone without a trace. She was going to be forced to ask one of the overworked assistants.
"J-O called from Denmark," Natalia said about her boss. "He wanted me to submit a report, and I just can't find it." She spotted another piece of paper, pulled it out, and read it with weary eyes. She hadn't gotten much sleep the previous night. First, she had worked until the wee hours. The enormous approaching deal was claiming almost all her time. Then a client had called early — very early — in the morning to complain about something that definitely could have waited a couple of hours. She glanced up at Åsa. "What do you mean I have quirks?"
Åsa took a sip from her disposable coffee cup, and then without responding to Natalia's question asked, "What's the problem?"
"Problems," Natalia replied. "My job. My dad. My mom. Everything."
"But what's all this paperwork for? Whatever happened to a paperless society?"
Natalia glanced at Åsa. Her friend looked chipper and well rested, nicely dressed, and neatly manicured. A wave of irritation surged through her.
"Look, not that I don't appreciate your unannounced visits," Natalia said, not entirely sincerely, "but my dad is always complaining about how much money his lawyers make. Shouldn't you be over at Investum working for your salary? I mean, instead of sitting here in my cramped office, swathed in Prada, harassing me?"
"I earn my high salary," Åsa said, waving her hand dismissively. "And you know full well that your father's not going to get rid of me." She gave Natalia a look. "You know that."
Natalia nodded. She knew.
"I happened to be in the neighborhood," Åsa continued, "and was just wondering if you wanted to get lunch. If I have to eat one more lunch with any of those other Investum attorneys, I'll kill myself. Actually, if I'd known how extremely boring lawyers are, I don't think I would have gone to law school." She fluffed her blond hair. "Maybe I would have made a good cult leader."
"I can't," Natalia said quickly, a little too quickly, she realized, but it was too late. "I'm busy." She cleared her throat. "Sorry," she added unnecessarily. "Like I said, I'm busy." She looked down and started flipping through some papers she'd already flipped through to avoid Åsa's penetrating stare.
"Yes," Natalia said. "That's not so weird, is it?"
Åsa's eyes narrowed. "Considering you have a brain like a supercomputer, you're a terrible liar," she said. "You had time yesterday. You said so yourself. And it's not like you have any other friends. Are you trying to avoid me?"
"No, I am busy. And I would never dream of trying to avoid you. You're my best friend. Although I do have other friends, you know. Maybe tomorrow? My treat."
"Busy doing what, if I might ask?" Åsa said, not letting the possibility of a free lunch tomorrow distract her.
Natalia didn't say anything. She looked down at her buried desk. Now would be a good time for one of her phones to ring, or maybe the fire alarm could go off, she thought.
Excerpted from All In by Simona Ahrnstedt, Tara Chace. Copyright © 2016 Simona Ahrnstedt. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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