Read an Excerpt
The Story of Son
By J. R. Ward
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 J. R. Ward
All rights reserved.
Claire Stroughton palmed her travel mug without looking up from the will she'd drafted and was reviewing.
"I hate when you do that."
Claire glanced across her office at her executive assistant. "Do what?"
"That heat-seeking missile routine with your coffee."
"My mug and I have a very close relationship."
Martha pushed her sleek glasses up on her nose. "Then good thing it's got a lid. You're going to be late for your five o'clock if you don't leave now."
Claire stood and pulled on her suit jacket. "How bad's the time?"
"Two twenty-nine. Drive to Caldwell is a minimum of two hours plus in this traffic and your car is waiting for you down in front. Your conference call with London is scheduled for sixteen ... fifteen minutes from now. What kind of cleanup do you need me to do before the long weekend?"
"I've reviewed the revised merger documents for Technitron and I'm not impressed." Claire passed over a stack of paper big enough to be used as a doorstop. "Courier them down to 50 Wall now. I need a meeting with opposing counsel seven a.m. Tuesday morning. They come to us. Do I owe you anything before I go?"
"No, but you can tell me something. What kind of sadistic bore schedules a meeting with their lawyer for five o'clock on the Friday of Labor Day weekend?"
"Client's always right. And sadistic is in the eye of the beholder." Claire packed up the will in a document case then grabbed her Birkin bag. As she looked around her spacious office, she tried to think of the work she planned to do over the weekend. "What am I forgetting?"
"Right, right." Claire used what was left in her mug to polish off the prescription she'd been working her way through for the last ten days. As she pitched the orange bottle in the wastepaper basket, she realized she hadn't sneezed or coughed since Sunday. Stuff had worked evidently.
Damn airplanes. Germ pools with wings.
"Walk with me." Claire gave a couple more marching orders on the way to the elevator, all the while waving to some of the two hundred-odd attorneys and support staff that worked at Williams, Nance & Stroughton. Martha kept pace with her in spite of the load of paper in her arms, but then that was what was great about the woman. No matter what, she was always there.
At the bank of elevators, Claire punched the down button. "Okay, I think that's it. Hope you have a good weekend."
"You, too. Try and take a break, would you?"
Claire stepped into the mahogany-paneled lift. "Can't. We have Technitron on Tuesday. I'm going to spend most of my weekend here."
Four minutes later she was in her Mercedes inching forward in the Manhattan traffic, trying to get out of the city. Eleven minutes after that she was being patched into London.
The conference call lasted fifty-three minutes and it was a good thing she was basically in a parking lot because the virtual meeting didn't go well. Which was pretty common. Mergers and acquisitions of billion-dollar companies were never easy and not for the faint of heart. Her father had taught her that.
Still, it was a relief to hang up and just focus on driving. Caldwell, New York, was probably only a hundred miles from downtown, but Martha was right. Traffic was a bitch. Apparently everyone and their uncle was trying to peel out of the Big Apple and they were all using the same route as Claire.
Normally, she wouldn't be taking the time to drive to see a client in a private home, but Miss Leeds was a special case for a lot of reasons and it wasn't like the woman could come down to the office easily. She was what? Ninety-one now?
Christ, maybe she was even older. Claire's father had been the woman's lawyer forever and after he'd died two years ago, Claire had inherited Miss Leeds along with his equity in the family firm. When she'd taken his seat at the partners' table, she became the first female in the history of Williams, Nance & Stroughton to park it in the boardroom, but she'd earned that right, in spite of what Walter Stroughton's will said. She was a fantastic M&A lawyer. Second to very, very few.
Miss Leeds was her only trusts and estates client, which had been the same for Claire's father. The elderly woman was worth close to two hundred million dollars, thanks to her family's interests in a variety of companies, all of which were represented by WN&S. These holdings were the heart of the relationship. Miss Leeds believed in sticking with what she knew and her family had been with the firm since its inception in 1911. So there you had it. An M&A rock star doing T&E for an NHC.
Or in human speak: a mergers and acquisitions specialist doing trusts and estates work for a nursing home candidate.
Believe it or not, the interaction algebra added up. The will and the trusts in it were fairly straightforward once you got familiar with them and Miss Leeds was easygoing compared to most of Claire's corporate clients. The woman was also good for business when it came to that will of hers. She approached revisions of it the way some people got into gardening, and at $650 an hour for Claire's time, the billable hours added up. Miss Leeds was constantly reworking the charitable portion of her estate, tilling that section, trimming and replanting the philanthropies as she changed her mind. The last two alterations Claire had handled over the phone, so when Miss Leeds had asked for a personal meeting this time, there was every reason to go up for a quick visit.
Hopefully it would be quick.
Claire had only been out to the Leeds estate once before, to introduce herself after her father's death. The meeting had gone well. Miss Leeds evidently had seen pictures of Claire through her father and had approved of Claire's "ladylike deportment."
Which was a joke. Although it was true that clothes could make both the man and the woman, and Claire's wardrobe was full of conservative suits with below-the- knee skirts, that was surface gloss. She had her father's head for business and his aggressive streak, too. She might look like a lady from her chignon to her sensible pumps, but on the inside she was a killer.
Most people picked up on her true nature about two minutes after meeting her and not just because she was a brunette. But it was a good thing Miss Leeds was fooled. She was from the old school and then some—part of a generation where proper women didn't work at all, much less as high-powered attorneys in Manhattan. Frankly, Claire had been surprised Miss Leeds hadn't gone with one of the other partners, but the two of them did get along for the most part. So far, the only hiccup in the relationship had occurred during that first face-to-face when the woman had asked whether Claire was married.
Claire was most definitely not married. Never had been, not interested, no thank you. Last thing she needed was some man with opinions about how late she stayed at the firm or how hard she worked or where they would live or what they would have for dinner. Eliza Leeds, however, was clearly of the you're-defined-by-what-was-sitting-next-to-you-in-pants set. So Claire had braced herself as she'd explained that, no, she had no husband.
Miss Leeds had seemed daunted, but then she'd rallied, moving swiftly on to the boyfriend question. The answer was the same. Claire did not have and didn't want one of those and no, no pets, either. There had been a long silence. Then the woman had smiled, made a brief comment along the lines of "my, how things have changed," and that was where they'd left things. At least for the moment.
Every time Miss Leeds called the office, she asked whether Claire had found a nice man. Which was fine. Whatever. Different generation. And the woman took the no's with grace—maybe because she herself had never been married. Evidently she had an unfulfilled romantic streak or something.
If Claire was honest, the whole relationship thing bored her. No, she didn't hate men. No, her parents' marriage hadn't been dysfunctional. No, in fact her father had been a very supportive male figure. There was no bad fallout from a relationship, no self-esteem issues, no pathology, no history of abuse. She was smart and she loved her work and she was grateful for the life she had. The home and hearth stuff was just made for other people. Bottom line? She totally respected women who became wives and mothers but didn't envy them their burden of caretaking. And she didn't have a hole in her heart on Christmas morning because she was alone. And she didn't need soccer games or drawings on her refrigerator or homemade gifts to feel fulfilled. And Valentine's Day and Mother's Day were just two more pages on the calendar.
What she loved was the battle in the boardroom. The negotiation. The tricky ins and outs of the law. The energizing responsibility of representing the interests of a ten-billion-dollar corporation—whether it was buying someone else or divesting assets or firing a CEO for having illicit eight-digit personal expenses.
All of that was what juiced her and, as she was at the top of her field and in her early thirties, she was in a damn good place in life. The only trouble she had was with people who didn't understand a woman like her. It was such a double standard. Men could spend their entire lives devoted to work and they were viewed as good earners, not antisocial spinster-aunts with intimacy issues. Why couldn't a woman be the same?
When Caldwell's span bridge finally appeared, Claire was ready to get the meeting over with, head back to her apartment on Park Avenue, and start prepping for the Technitron showdown on Tuesday. Hell, maybe there would be enough time to even go back to the office.
The Leeds estate consisted of ten acres of sculptured grounds, four outbuildings, and a wall that you'd need rapelling gear and the upper body strength of a personal trainer to surmount. The mansion was a huge pile of stone set on a rise, an ostentatious display of new wealth erected during the Gothic Revival period of the 1890s. To Claire, it looked like something Vincent Price would pay taxes on.
Navigating the circular drive, she parked in front of the cathedral-worthy entrance and set her cell phone to vibrate. Picking up her bag, she approached the house thinking she should have a cross in one hand and a dagger in the other. Man, if she had Leeds's money, she'd live in something a little less dreary. Like a mausoleum.
One side of the double doors was opened before she got to the lion's head knocker. Leeds's butler, who was a hundred and eight if he was a day, bowed.
"Good evening, Miss Stroughton. May I inquire, did madam leave the keys in the car?"
Was his name Fletcher? Yeah, that was it. And Miss Leeds liked you to use his name. "No, Fletcher."
"Perhaps you will give them to me? In the event your car must be moved." When she frowned, he said quietly, "I'm afraid Miss Leeds is not doing well. If an ambulance must come ..."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Is she ill or ..." Claire let the sentence drift off as she handed over her keys.
"She's very weak. Please, come with me."
Fletcher walked with the kind of slow dignity you'd expect from a man sporting a formal British butler's uniform. And he fit in with the decor. The house was furnished in old-money style, with layer upon layer of art collected over generations choking the rooms. The priceless hodgepodge of museum-quality paintings and sculpture and furniture was from different periods, but it flowed together. Although what an upkeep. Dusting the stuff would be like cutting twenty acres of grass with a push mower—as soon as you were finished, you'd need to start again.
She and Fletcher took the massive, curving staircase up to the second floor and went down the hallway. On both sides, hanging on red silk walls, were portraits of various Leeds, their pale faces glowing against dark backgrounds, their two-dimensional eyes following you. The air smelled like lemon polish and old wood.
Down at the end, Fletcher knocked on a carved door. When there was a weak greeting, he opened the panel wide.
Miss Leeds was propped up in a bed the size of a house, looking as small as a child, as fragile as a sheet of paper. There was white lace everywhere, dripping from the canopy, hanging to the floor around the mattress, covering the windows. It was a wintry scene complete with icicles and snow banks, except it wasn't cold.
"Thank you for coming, Claire." Miss Leeds's voice was frail to the point of a whisper. "Forgive me for not being able to meet with you properly."
"That's quite all right." Claire came forward on tiptoe, afraid to make any noise or sudden movements. "How are you feeling?"
"Better than I did yesterday. Perhaps I have caught the flu."
"It has been going around, but I'm glad you're on the mend." Claire did not think it would be helpful to mention she'd had to go on antibiotics for something like that herself. "Still, I'll be quick and let you get back to resting."
"But you must stay for some tea. Won't you?"
Fletcher piped up. "Shall I get the tea?"
"Please, Claire. Join me for tea."
Hell. She wanted to get back.
Client is always right. Client is always right. "But of course."
"Good. Fletcher, do bring the tea and serve it when we're through with my papers." Miss Leeds smiled and closed her eyes. "Claire, you may sit beside me. Fletcher will bring you a chair."
Fletcher didn't look like he could handle bringing over a footstool, much less something she could sit in.
"That's okay," Claire said. "I'll get one—"
Without taking a breath, the butler easily hefted over an antique armchair that looked as if it weighed as much as a Buick.
Whoa. Bionic butler, evidently. "Ah ... thank you."
"Madam will be comfortable in this."
Yeah, and maybe madam will drive it home if her car doesn't start.
As Fletcher left, Claire put her butt on the throne and glanced at her client. The old woman's eyes were still closed. "Miss Leeds ... are you sure you don't want me to leave the will with you? You can review it at your leisure and I can come back to notarize your signature."
There was a long silence and she wondered if the woman had fallen asleep. Or, God forbid ... "Miss Leeds?"
Pale lips barely moved. "Have you a gentleman caller yet?"
"You are so lovely, you know." Watery eyes opened and Miss Leeds's head turned on the pillow. "I should like you to meet my son."
"I beg your pardon?" Miss Leeds had a son?
"I have shocked you." The smile that stretched thin skin was sad. "Yes. I am ... a mother. It all happened long ago and in secret—both the deed and the birthing. We kept it all quiet. Father insisted and he was right to do so. That was why I never married. How could I?"
Holy ... shit. Back then, whenever it was, women did not have children out of wedlock. The scandal would have been tremendous for a prominent family like the Leeds. And ... well, that must be why Miss Leeds had never made any mention of a son in her will. She'd left the bulk of the estate to Fletcher because old mores died hard.
"My son will like you."
Okay, that was a total no-go. If the woman had had a baby when she was in her early twenties, the guy would be seventy by now. But more than that, the client might always be right, but there was no way in hell Claire was going to prostitute herself to keep business.
"Miss Leeds, I don't think—"
"You will meet him. And he will like you."
Claire assumed her most diplomatic voice, the one that was ultracalm and ultrareasonable. "I'm sure he's a wonderful man, but it would be a conflict of interest."
"You will meet ... and he will like you."
Before Claire could try another approach, Fletcher came back pushing a large cart with enough silver on it to qualify as a Tiffany's display. "Shall I serve now, Miss Leeds?"
"After the papers, please." Miss Leeds reached out a veined hand, the nails of which were trimmed perfectly and polished pink. Maybe Fletcher had his beauty license, too. "Claire, will you read to me?"
The changes were not complicated and neither was Miss Leeds's approval—which made the trip feel utterly unnecessary. As that frail hand curled around Claire's Montblanc and drew a shaky approximation of "Eliza Merchant Castile Leeds" on the last line, Claire tried not to think of the four hours of work time she'd lost or the fact that she couldn't stand coddling people.
Excerpted from The Story of Son by J. R. Ward. Copyright © 2008 J. R. Ward. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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