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England in February was not a place he would have chosen to be, Leon Aristides thought angrily as the freezing rain continued to lash down almost obscuring his view of the road. But the letter he had received at his office in Athens yesterday morning from a Mr Smyth, a partner in a firm of London solicitors, and the information enclosed within had totally stunned him.
Apparently the man had read an article in the Financial Times, mentioning the dip in the price of Aristides International shares, where Leonidas Aristides had explained it was an understandable market reaction to the tragic accident that had claimed the lives of his sister and his father, the chairman of the company, but the price would quickly recover. The said Mr Smyth had informed him Delia Aristides was a client of his and he wanted confirmation of her death as his firm held a will made by the lady and he was the executor.
Leon's first thought was that it must be a hoax resulting from the mention of his name in the paper, an unusual enough circumstance in itself. The Aristides name occasionally appeared in financial journals, but rarely if ever in the popular press. A banking family, they belonged to the type of wealthy Ã©lite that did not court publicity or fame but concentrated on the fortune. Their privacy was so closely guarded that the general public barely knew they existed. But after a telephone call to Mr Smyth, Leon had quickly realised the man was serious and if he didn't act fast that anonymity might disappear all too soon. He had arranged to call him back later. Then he had finally taken the time to go through his sister's safety deposit box, something he should havedone weeks ago, but which the constant pressures of business had prevented.
There were the jewels their mother had left her, as he had expected. But there was also a copy of a will drawn up two years ago by the same Mr Smyth of London and officially signed and witnessed. A will moreover that took precedence over the will held by the family lawyer in Athens that Delia had made at the age of eighteen at their father's instigation.
The information the new will contained so outraged Leon his initial reaction had been to tear the document into a million pieces. But only for an instant before his iron-cool control had reasserted itself and he had called one of his lawyers. The resultant conversation had made him think long and hard.
A return call to Mr Smyth and he'd had an early appointment with the man for the following day. At the crack of dawn this morning he had boarded his private jet heading for London. A sombre interview with the lawyer had confirmed the shocking news.
Apparently on Leon's verbal confirmation of Delia's death he had immediately drafted a letter to one Miss Heywood as instructed, informing her that Delia had died and she was a beneficiary of her will. Leon could do nothing about it now, but he had obtained the man's promise of absolute discretion in the matter and they had parted with a handshake. Mr Smyth was an honest man but no fool, a banking company like Aristides International was not one to upset unnecessarily.
Leon manoeuvred the rental car into the short drive. In the ordinary course of events he usually travelled by a chauffeured limousine, but in this case absolute secrecy was required until he had assessed the situation. He stopped the car and glanced up at the house. Nestling in the Cotswold hills, it was a double fronted detached stone built house, surprisingly set in the corner of the walled grounds of a luxury hotel.
Which was why he had driven past the entrance drive to the Fox Tower Hotel and around the whole damn estate three times without connecting the entrance to the hotel with the home of Miss Heywood: The Farrow House, Foxcovet Lane. So much for satellite navigation systems. Finally, in frustration he had entered the hotel and booked a room for the night; it looked as if he was going to need one if he did not find the elusive Miss Heywood soon. Then with a few casual questions he had discovered where the house was and why it had taken him so damn long to find it.
A light shone from a downstairs window, hardly surprising given the gloominess of the day, and hopefully an indication Helen Heywood was at home. He had considered ringing her, but he did not want to warn her. The element of surprise was the best weapon in any battle, and this was a conflict he was determined to win.
A predatory gleam lightened his dark eyes as he opened the car door and stepped out onto the gravelled drive slamming the door behind him. Unless she had already received the letter from Mr Smyth, which was highly unlikely if the British postal service was anything like the Greek, the lady was in for one hell of a shock. Squaring his broad shoulders, he approached the front door with decisive steps and rang the bell.
No signal again. Helen slowly replaced the telephone on the hall table, a frown pleating her smooth brow. Her best friend Delia Aristides led a hectic lifestyle but she usually called every week and visited at least once a month. Admittedly since Delia had returned to Greece last July she had occasionally missed a week or two, but now it was over six weeks without a call. What made it worse was Delia had promised her son, Nicholas, she would definitely visit in the New Year after cancelling her last three visits, but once again she had cancelled at the last minute. Helen had heard nothing since.
She chewed worriedly on her bottom lip. It wasn't fair to Nicholas, or to her for that matter. Nicholas had been at nursery school all morning and, after she had collected him and made his lunch, he was now taking his afternoon nap. She knew he would be awake in an hour, if not sooner, and she wanted to get in touch with Delia before that. But she only had Delia's cell phone number. Helen knew the address of the Aristides island home but not the telephone number, she had tried to get the number from enquiries but of course it had turned out to be ex-directory. She was at a loss as to what to do next.
Helen grimaced and picked up the post she had not yet had time to look at from the hall table. Maybe Delia had written, but it was a forlorn hope. Her friend had never written a letter in all the time she had known her, the nearest she got was a card at Christmas and birthdays. Telephone or e-mail were her preferred forms of communication.
The doorbell rang, and she dropped the post and, heaving a sigh, wondered who could be calling in the middle of the afternoon.
"All right, all right I'm coming," she muttered as the bell pealed out again and continued to ring. Whoever it was they obviously were not big in the patience department, she thought as she walked down the hall to open the door.
Leon Aristides. Helen stiffened, her hand tightening on the door handle, unable to believe her eyes. For a fleeting moment she wondered if she had forgotten to wear her contact lenses and he was a figment of her imagination, but only for a moment.
"Hello, Helen,' a deep-throated voice drawled, and although she was slightly myopic there was nothing wrong with her hearing. Oh, my God, Delia's brother! Here, at her door.
"Good afternoon, Mr Aristides." She automatically made the polite response, her shocked gaze flicking up over him. Six feet plus and immaculately clad in a dark business suit, white shirt and silk tie, he hadn't changed much in the years since she had last met him. He was just as big, and dark, and forbidding as she remembered.
With heavy-lidded dark eyes and angular cheek-bones, a large straight nose and a wide mouth, he ing effect on her as he had the first time they had met, bringing a sudden fluttering in her stomach that she determinedly put down to nerves. She couldn't possibly still be afraid of the man. She was twenty-six, not seventeen any more.
"This is a surprise. What are you doing here?" she finally asked, eyeing him warily.
She had met him nine years ago, the one time she had gone on vacation with Delia to her family holiday home in Greece, and she had been left with a lasting impression of cynical arrogance and powerful masculinity.
She had been walking along the beach when a deep voice had called out demanding to know who she was. She had understood that much Greek. Glancing towards the sea, she had seen a man standing on the shoreline. She had known it was a private beach, but as Delia's guest she had had every right to be there, and in her innocence she had called out a response and walked towards him, concentrating on trying to bring him into focus. As her vision had improved she had offered her name with a smile, and held out her hand, then stopped and stared, her hand suspended in mid-air.
He had been tall and broad with a white towel draped around his lean hips, and the musculature of his magnificent bronzed body had been so clearly defined Michelangelo himself could not have sculpted better.
His gaze had captured hers, and the breath had stopped in her throat. There had been something dark and dangerous swirling in the black depths of his eyes that had made her heart beat faster. Every primitive sense she had possessed had told her to run but she had been paralysed by the physical presence of the man. Then he had finally spoken, and his sarcastic comment rang in her head to this day.
"Flattered though I am, and available as you so obviously are, I am a married man. You should try asking before ogling."And he had walked away. She had never been so embarrassed before, or since.
"I would have thought that was self-evident. "The sound of his voice jerked her back to the present. "I am here to see you. We need to talk." He smiled but she noticed the smile didn't touch his eyes.
Helen didn't want to talk to him. She shuddered at the thought.