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Of course, Leo had known what his mother was thinking when she had said, without any hint of inflection in her voice, that they had hoped he might have arrived a little earlier— several hours earlier, she could have said, were she to have been absolutely precise. Instead, she had held back her obvious disappointment and had listened to his excuses without comment.
Meetings had overrun. An urgent call had come through just as he had been leaving the office. Inevitable Friday traffic. Leo had kept the excuses brief, knowing that his mother would never actually tell him exactly what she was thinking, would never express disapproval or condemnation. In fact, he doubted whether there had been any need at all to make excuses, but politeness had driven him to apologise just as politeness had driven his mother to respond as she had, without any hint of censure.
'Daniel,' she had said eventually, 'has popped out to see Heather. Just next door. The quickest way is to walk across the fields to her house, but I expect you would rather drive. Or, of course, you could wait here. I told Heather that he was to be back no later than seven.'
'I'll walk.' He would not take the car because, as a city gent, a billionaire who had no time for country walks, he would never choose to wait.
So now here he was, sampling at first hand the extensive acreage that surrounded the exquisite country house which he had bought for his mother over six years ago following his father's death.
Leo had never stepped foot beyond the neatly manicured gardens surrounding the house. Naturally, he had known that the grounds stretched as far as the eye could see, encompassing fields and a thickly wooded area which became lush with lilac lavender during the warm summer-months. Hadn't he, after all, carefully read the reports sent to him by the people he had commissioned to find the property in the first place? Hadn't he duly noted the practicality of his mother living in a house which would not, in due course, find itself surrounded by housing estates due to greedy building contractors having no respect for open space?
But only now, as he tramped across the endless fields, inappropriately clad in handmade leather shoes and a pale-grey suit which had cost the earth, did he appreciate the true size of his investment. Surely his mother, now edging towards her seventies, didn't ever explore the furthest reaches of the estate?
It occurred to him that in truth he had no real inkling as to what his mother did from one day to the next. He dutifully telephoned three times a week—or considerably more now that Daniel had landed on the scene—and was told that she was fine, Daniel was fine, the house was fine, life was fine. Then he would attempt to have a conversation with Daniel, which elicited much the same response but in a rather more hostile tone of voice. The details of this fine life were never painted in, so he was at a loss to know whether his mother actually realised just how much walking this hike to 'the house next door' entailed.
He cursed himself for thinking that he would enjoy the fresh air and exercise. Fresh air, he acknowledged—swatting past some brambles, while the summer sunshine reminded him of the folly of venturing out in the countryside wearing a jacket—was best confined to those brief mini-breaks called holidays which he took a couple of times a year—usually combining them with work, women or, more often than not, both. As for exercise, he got ample amounts of that at his London gym where he thrashed out the stress of his high-powered job on a punching bag and then cooled down with fifty-odd laps in the Olympic-sized swimming pool. No one could accuse him of being unfit. This, however, seemed to require a different sort of stamina. He found himself wishing that he had had the foresight to bring his mobile phone with him, because he could have usefully used the time to make a couple of calls, which he would now have to do when he returned to the house.
Heather's house, his mother had assured him, couldn't be missed—it was a small, white, cosy cottage and the garden was spilling over with flowers of every description. Her face had softened when she had said this, and he had wondered whether Heather was one of her pals from the village, someone with whom she shared gossip once a week over pots of tea.
Or something along those lines, at any rate.
It was a heartening thought. Somehow he felt less of the guilty older-son, knowing that his mother had someone virtually on her doorstep with whom she could pass the time of day. And less of the guilty absentee-father, knowing that this kindly neighbour had also bonded with his son.
The cottage in question leapt out at him without warning, and his mother was right; there was no danger of him missing it. 'Strike out west and head for the house that looks as though it belongs in the pages of a fairy tale'. Leo hadn't realised that so many types of flora existed, and he surprised himself by pausing for a couple of seconds to admire the profusion of colour.
Then he circled the cottage, noting the white picket-fence, the clambering roses, all those tell-tale signs of someone who was seriously into clichés. He almost expected to spot a couple of garden gnomes peering out from between the riot of flowers that bordered the little stone path to the front door, but fortunately he was spared that particular horror.
Leo himself was minimalist to the bone. His London penthouse apartment paid homage to the axiom 'less is more': black leather, chrome and glass. On the white walls, outrageously expensive, abstract paintings were splashes of colour that slowly appreciated in value even as they adorned his walls; it was why he had bought them in the first place.
The door knocker appeared to be some quirky, mythical creature. Leo banged on it twice, just in case he was dealing with someone hard of hearing.
He heard the sound of quickly approaching footsteps, and something that sounded like muffled laughter. Then the door was opened and he found himself staring down into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. A tangle of pure gold, curly hair framed a heart-shaped face, and as his eyes involuntarily travelled further downwards they took in the small, curvaceous figure that, in a society that prized the stick-thin figure, would be labelled 'overweight'.
'Who are you?' he demanded without preamble, lounging against the door frame.
'You must be Daniel's dad.' Heather stood aside to let him enter. She couldn't help herself. Disapproval had seeped into her voice, and he must have noticed it, because his ebony brows pleated into a frown.
'And you must be Heather. I was expecting someone… older.'
Heather could have told him that he was exactly what she had been expecting. Her neighbour Katherine had talked about him, of course, had told her all about his meteoric career in the city. And Heather had heard between the lines a description of a workaholic, someone who was driven to succeed, someone who had precious little time for the things that mattered most in life. A lousy son and an even lousier father.
Up close and personal, he was every inch the successful businessman she had expected.
He was also incredibly good-looking; this bit was doing its best to nudge a hole in her disapproval. A lot better looking than those grainy pictures she had been shown in the scrap book Katherine kept of all his achievements, in fact. Indeed, the man was drop-dead gorgeous. Raven-black hair framed a face whose perfect, chiselled symmetry was harshly, coolly sensational. His eyes were grey and watchful, eyes that chose to give nothing away. She felt a shockingly potent quiver of awareness, then thankfully the moment was gone, lost under the weight of her disapproval.
Charitable by nature, Heather knew that it was crazy to judge a book by its cover, but she had had more than a passing brush with arrogance and success. Some women might find all that power and wealth an incredible turn on, but she knew from first-hand experience the price that had to be paid for being attracted to such dazzling light: too high.
'I have come for my son.' Having cursorily inspected the tiny hall, with its cosy flag-stoned floor and bowls of flowers on the window ledges by the door, Leo swung back round to face the woman who appeared to be dithering by the front door.
It had been a hot day, and she was wearing what looked like a loose, flowing gypsy-style affair, the sort of outfit that had been fashionable once upon a time. She was also looking at him with the sort of expression that promised a lecture, given half a chance. Leo sincerely hoped she would keep whatever was on her mind to herself, and he had an inkling of an idea what it was. He had no time for lectures, well-intentioned or otherwise.
'He's just finishing his tea.'
'Dinner, if you prefer.'
'Why is he eating here? I told my mother that I would take them both out for something to eat.'
'I guess he just got hungry.' Heather refrained from adding to that statement. The fact was, Daniel had refused point-blank to have dinner with his father.
'Well, thank you very much, but it might have been worth finding out first whether plans had been made.'
This was just too much. Heather slipped past Leo to the kitchen, where she told Daniel that his father was here, and registered his expression of scowling indifference. Then she quietly shut the kitchen door and folded her arms.
'On the subject of plans…' she delivered coldly, ignoring the forbidding expression on his face.
'Before you go any further, I'm in no mood to listen to someone I don't know from Adam climbing on a podium and giving me a lecture.'
Faced with such a blunt, arrogant dismissal of what she had been about to say, Heather's mouth dropped open, and Leo took that as immediate and obedient closure on a subject about which he had little interest. He walked past her towards the kitchen but she caught his wrist. It was like being zapped with a very powerful electric charge, and it took all her will power to stand her ground and not cower. She suspected that this was a man who specialised in inspiring fear.
'I think we should talk before you get your son, Mr West.'
'The name's Leo; I think we can dispense with the formalities, considering you're apparently an honorary member of the family.' He looked at her small hand circling his wrist and then back to her face. 'And I guarantee that whatever you have to say is going to be of little interest to me. So why not spare yourself the sermon?'
'I don't intend to give you a sermon.'
'Wonderful! Then what exactly is it you want to talk about?' He glanced at his watch. 'But you'll have to make it short, I'm afraid. It's been a hellish trip up here, and I have work to do when I get back to the house.'
Heather took a deep breath. 'Okay. I am a little annoyed.'
Leo made no effort to conceal his impatience. In that rarefied world in which he lived, people didn't get annoyed with him—least of all women—but this one was practically pulsating, so he shrugged. He would let her have her say, and then he would clear off with his son. 'Okay. Spit it out.'
'In the sitting room. I don't want Daniel to hear us.'
She led the way, acutely conscious of him behind her. Once they were both in the room, staring at each other like combatants in an arena, she said in a controlled voice, 'I don't think you realise how disappointed Daniel was that you didn't make it to his Sports Day. It's a big deal at the school, and he'd been practising for weeks.'
Leo flushed guiltily. Of course he had known that this would be flung at him but it still irked him, that this perfect stranger had the brazenness to stand there, staring at him with wide, accusing, critical eyes.
'That, as I explained to my mother, was unavoidable—
and, now you've got that off your chest, I think I'll leave with my son.'
'Why was it unavoidable?' Heather persisted. 'Don't tell me that there was something more important than seeing your son come first in the hundred-metre sprint?'
'Actually, I don't have to tell you anything,' Leo informed her coolly. 'I don't make a habit of explaining myself to anyone, least of all someone I've known for—what?—roughly fifteen minutes. I don't recall my mother even mentioning your name in any of the conversations I've had with her.'
That came as no surprise to Heather. Daniel went to the local private school. He stayed in the house with Katherine, and occasionally, over the past eight months his father had deigned to visit, usually on a Sunday; a full weekend presumably was just too much for him. More often than not, he imported both Katherine and Daniel to London, sending his driver to collect them on the Saturday morning, and delivering them back to the country promptly on the Sunday afternoon.
Anyone would think that a man who had lost his son for years, when his ex-wife had disappeared off to Australia, would have wanted to spend as much time as possible making up for the wasted time!
Clearly not the man standing in front of her.
Katherine would not have mentioned Heather because her son would have had zero interest in finding out about the people who figured in his mother's life. From what Heather had gleaned, Leo West was an utterly selfish money-making machine.
'I realise I don't have any right to tell you how to lead your life,' Heather said, doing her best to be fair, 'but Daniel needs you. He would never say so because he's probably scared of you.'
'Has he told you that he's scared of me?' This conversation was now becoming bizarre. He had expected to be greeted by a motherly lady, maybe to be offered a cup of tea, which he would, naturally, have refused; to leave with his son in tow, any sullen-ness over his absence at the wretched Sports Day to be forgotten when he presented him with the present he had bought. It was the very latest mobile phone, capable of doing pretty much anything bar washing the dishes and cooking the meals.
Instead, he was being held to account by a twenty-something girl with a challenged sense of dress who had probably never set foot out of the village.