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A Daughter For Christmas

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CHAPTER TWO

‘WHAT!’ The colour had drained from Nicholas Kendall’s face and his body was rigid.

‘I know that this must come as a shock to you—’ Leigh began, and he cut in swiftly, leaning forward, with his elbows on the table.

‘What the hell are you playing at? You breeze in here and have the bare-faced nerve to present me with the most deranged story I’ve ever heard in my entire life, and then you talk to me about shock. I have no idea what’s going on in that head of yours, but you must be certifiable if you think that you can try and hold a virtual stranger to ransom over some fabricated piece of nonsense.’

Leigh couldn’t recall ever having felt so intimidated in her life before. His expression conveyed shock, disbelief and, now that his colour had returned, a terrible calm. She was reminded of the calm before a storm.

‘It’s not fabricated, Mr Kendall.’ She leaned forward and her voice was urgent. ‘Why should I waste my time, fabricating something like this? Do you think that I haven’t got better things to do with my time? I’m not playing at anything. Believe me when I tell you that the very last place I want to be right now is here, breaking this news to you.’

‘But you felt that you had to...’ His mouth twisted cynically and she flinched ‘You must have taken leave of your senses if you think that I’m going to fall for the oldest con trick in the world.’ He sat back, but there was nothing relaxed about his posture. Even though he had drawn away from her she still felt as intimidated as when his body had been thrust forward, menacing her.

‘Con trick...?’ She looked at him in bewilderment

‘And don’t play the innocent with me. I’m not sure what you and your sister have cooked up between you, but you’re crazy to think that I’m idiot enough to believe a word of what you’re saying. You must have thought you’d hit jackpot when I agreed to having remembered your sister. What I don’t understand is why she sent you on her behalf. Did she think that your fresh-faced, onlyjust-out-of-high-school look might have had a bit more sway?’

‘I told you, Mr Kendall, my sister was killed in a car accident almost a year and a half ago. And this isn’t some kind of con trick. You think that I want to be here? What kind of person do you imagine that I am?’

‘Presumably one like your sister, Miss Walker.’

‘And what exactly is that supposed to mean?’

‘Why don’t you try working it out for yourself?’ he answered in a smooth, soft, menacing voice.

‘Nothing you’re saying makes any sense. I came here—’

‘Having cooked up a plot with your sister—’

‘Having done nothing of the sort!’ Every instinct in Leigh urged her to get up and leave, but however angry and insulted she was she knew that she could obey none of those instincts. She was utterly trapped—condemned, at least, to conclude what she had begun.

‘Get it through your head, Mr Kendall...’ she glared at him with loathing ‘...that egotistical, arrogant head of yours, that I’m not here on some harebrained scheme dreamt up by anyone...’

‘Just a courtesy call to let me know that I’m a father...’ His eyes narrowed to slits, and she half expected him to stand up and inform her that he had had enough of her time-wasting. She knew that if he did that, if he walked out on her now, then her audience with him was gone for ever.

‘No, of course this isn’t a courtesy call!’ She felt a sense of hopeless misery, welling up inside her. Her hands were clenched into tight fists.

‘Which really only leaves us one other possibility—wouldn’t you agree, Miss Walker?’

She looked at him and felt once more at the mercy of an overwhelming personality. This, she reckoned, was the last place in the world she would choose to be. Shark-infested waters would be preferable.

‘I’m not trying to con you, Mr Kendall,’ she said stubbornly, miserably.

‘I dislike stupidity, Miss Walker. I dislike it even more when people try and camouflage it with guile.’ He regarded her coldly and she met his wintry eyes with a sudden rush of hot, giddy anger.

‘This was a mistake,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t know what possessed me to come here.’ She stood up, realising that her legs were unsteady.

‘Sit down!’

‘Go to hell!’ She began to walk away. Her whole body was hot and trembling. She needed to get some cool air on her face. In a minute she would combust—at least, that was how she felt She was hardly aware of him behind her until she felt his fingers around her arm, slowing her down.

‘Take your hands off me,’ she snarled through gritted teeth, ‘or I’ll scream my head off loud enough to have all these stuffed people in here running for cover.’

Something flickered in his eyes—she couldn’t tell what—and he removed his hand.

‘I’m not through with you yet, Miss Walker. Your little plan may have backfired and you may well want to beat a tactical retreat now but you can forget it. You started this and you’ll damn well finish it, and I may as well warn you that blackmail is a crime.’

‘Don’t you threaten me!’ She stared at him in wide-eyed horror. Crime? What was he talking about? She hadn’t done anything wrong but she felt like a criminal.

‘Oh, dear, losing your grip on the proceedings?’ He gave a short, acid laugh.

‘You’re mad,’ she said flatly. ‘Completely mad. You can believe what you like about my motives for being here, but if you have no intention of hearing me out I certainly don’t intend to stay here while you have fun, pulling me to shreds.’ She met his eyes, without blinking.

He didn’t answer. He stared back at her in silence and she knew that he was working out whether to give her a chance to say what she had come to say, even if it confirmed every accusation he had levelled against her, or whether to have her thrown out and put the whole thing down to an unpleasant episode with a crackpot.

‘We’ll talk in one of the sitting rooms,’ he said grimly. ‘I’m prepared to listen to what you have to say but, so help me, if this is a ploy to get money out of me I’ll personally see to it that you regret the day you—’

‘Are you accusing me of gold-digging?’ Leigh whispered, trying hard to feel relief and gratitude instead of sheer fury at his assaults.

They were walking through another part of the building, towards what she now saw was yet another sitting area, though not one of those she had passed on the way in. Its only occupant was a man who was well into his seventies and was fast asleep with a newspaper open on his lap. The room was furnished in dark reds, heavy colours that brought to mind images of clarets and ports and the savouring of fine wines. There was a very masculine feel to it which was daunting though not entirely unpleasant.

They sat in chairs furthest away from the sleeping man, facing one another like combatants. Which, she considered bleakly, was what they were.

‘I’m an extremely wealthy man, Miss Walker. It does tend to instil a certain amount of cynicism.’

Leigh didn’t say anything. She was here, she knew, for help. True, she had not come voluntarily, but because she had found herself in a corner from which all other routes seemed barred. But wasn’t she appealing for some kind of financial assistance when all was said and done? It was a humiliating situation in which to find herself, particularly because Nicholas Kendall had no intention of letting her off the hook with pleasantries. He was accommodating her now, but only because he was curious.

‘I suppose so,’ she admitted reluctantly, linking her fingers together on her lap.

‘You suppose so?’

‘Yes. well, I really have no experience of... I’ve never mixed in circles...’ She had no real idea what he’d meant when he’d said that he was extremely wealthy but she was beginning to get an idea. It was there in the deference of George, in his self-assurance, which spoke of someone accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed, and in the cut of his clothes.

It was stamped on him so clearly that he might just as well have been carrying a sign on his forehead.

A ready target for gold-diggers, she assumed. More so because of his compelling good looks.

Not many men had such a combination. The thought of anyone cultivating someone else because of the size of their bank balance was something she found so distasteful, however, that she could barely get her mind around it.

Another elderly man, who bore a striking resemblance to George and treated Nicholas in the same deferential manner, took an order for two coffees. As soon as he had left, Nicholas leaned forward and said bluntly, ‘So you’re telling me that I went to Majorca eight years ago, spent one night with your sister and I am the father of a seven-year-old child as a result.’

Leigh nodded.

‘And if all that is true, which I don’t for a minute concede it is, why have you only now come to me with this information? Why didn’t your sister tell me about the pregnancy? She knew my name, she could have tracked me down without a great deal of difficulty. I’m well known in financial circles.’

‘It’s a long story,’ Leigh replied nervously.

‘I’m all ears.’ He sat back, crossed his legs and regarded her with those bottomless green eyes. ‘I’m eager to know why you would suddenly decide that my paternal rights might count for something.’

He might be sitting here, she thought, he might have told her that he was prepared to hear what she had to say, but she could tell from the look on his face that he was less prepared to believe what he might hear.

‘My sister was married at the time you met her,’ Leigh began slowly, and his eyebrows shot up.

‘Really? Well, she certainly kept quiet about that.’

‘She would have been wearing a wedding ring,’ Leigh pointed out, and he shrugged.

‘I don’t automatically look at a woman’s finger when she’s in the process of throwing herself at me.’

‘Oh, I see. You just take what’s on offer.’

‘Before you start questioning my morals, I’d advise you to look a little more closely at your sister’s, Miss Walker.’

He made it sound as though Jenny had been nothing more than a common tramp, and Leigh clamped down on the temptation to launch into a vitriolic defence of her sister’s state of mind at the time.

Jenny had been no tramp, she knew that She had thrown herself into her night of insanity with the abandon of someone trying to forget the present, drowning her sorrow in a single act whose repercussions she could never have foreseen.

‘Jenny had her reasons for her behaviour, Mr Kendall,’ she said coldly. ‘What were yours?’

He didn’t like that His face darkened. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve come here to debate my morals, Miss Walker, but if it’s of any interest to you I tried to get in touch with her the following morning, only to find that she had checked out.’

‘And what a blow that must have been to you.’

‘No one speaks to me like that!’

‘I can speak to you any way I please.’ She couldn’t, she knew, but wisdom was trailing very far behind a reckless desire to speak her mind, whatever the consequences. She refused to be cowed by his money and power.

‘I don’t fool around with married women.’

Leigh shrugged, abandoning the impulse to give him a lecture on Men Of His Type. What was the point? He said that he didn’t fool around with married women. What was to be gained by debating the issue? Besides, maybe he was telling the truth, maybe he was loaded with moral virtue, maybe principles were coming out of his ears. If that were the case, then it was unfortunate for him that his looks seemed to tell a different story.

‘Well,’ she continued, ‘whatever. Your principles are your business and they have nothing to do with why I’m here.’ He looked as though he wanted to shake her into agreeing with him, and she ignored the look on his face. ‘Jenny was married at the time and...’ she scoured her brain for the right way of saying what she was about to say ’...things weren’t going too well. Or, rather, they were going very well, but—’

‘Perhaps you could get your facts straight...’

‘I would if you’d give me half a chance!’ She glared at him, pausing while George’s clone sidled towards their table and deposited a tray with percolated coffee, cups, saucers, sugar and milk.

‘She had just had some bad news,’ Leigh hissed, leaning forward and sloshing coffee and milk into her cup. Let him pour his own. If he found it so difficult to be civil to her she was damned if she was going to make an effort to show any civility towards him. This whole meeting was turning out to be a full-blown disaster, anyway.

‘Odd way to react to bad news, don’t you think?’ He poured his coffee—no milk—and sat back in the chair and regarded her coldly. ‘Leaving the country for a jaunt in a foreign hotel away from hearth and home and, now you tell me, husband.’

‘You don’t understand...’

‘If she was that blissfully married why didn’t she talk out with her husband whatever problems she was having? You haven’t exactly thought out this story logically, have you, Miss Walker? Or did you think that I’d fall for whatever you said to me, hook, line and sinker, with no questions asked?’

Two bright patches of colour appeared on her cheeks, and Leigh swallowed back the renewed temptation to storm out of the club.

‘Look, Mr Kendall,’ she said evenly, ‘I realise that you think yourself the world’s most eligible bachelor. You seem to think that no woman could possibly approach you unless her intentions were devious, which, incidentally, is a very sad state of affairs, but I assure you that I haven’t lain in bed, plotting and planning this meeting. I’m here because I’ve found myself in the position of having no other option.’

‘World’s most eligible bachelor...’ He linked his fingers together and a half-smile crossed his darkly cynical face, though not quite reaching his eyes which remained cool and shrewd. ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ His eyes caught hers and held them fractionally too long for Leigh’s comfort.

‘No,’ she said politely, ‘I don’t think so either. Anyway, if I might be allowed to continue?’

‘Carry on.’

‘You have to understand that all of this...everything that I’m telling you now... I knew nothing about all this at the time. I only found out...’ She hated talking about Jenny, about the accident. At the time she had had to be brave for Amy’s sake, but the awful reality of it had been only a heartbeat away. Time made it easier to accept but right now she felt that if she dwelt too hard on her sister’s death she would find herself giving in to the temptation to bawl her eyes out.

She didn’t imagine that the man sitting opposite her would appreciate the outburst of emotion.

‘She and Roy—that was her husband—’

‘Who was also involved in this so-called accident—’

‘That’s right, and there’s nothing “so-called” about it.’

‘What happened?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Was she your only sibling?’

Leigh looked at him with frustration. Why wouldn’t he just let her finish her piece? Having jumped down her throat, why was he now dragging this information out of her? She didn’t like talking about it. In fact, she seldom did. She had wept at the funeral, but her thoughts she preferred to keep to herself. Circumstances had hardened her, forced her to become self-reliant.

‘Yes,’ she answered abruptly.

‘What about other relatives? Aunts, uncles? You haven’t mentioned your parents so I assume that they’re no longer on the scene.’

‘This is irrelevant,’ Leigh told him brusquely. ‘If I’d known you’d ask all these questions I would have come armed with a family tree.’

Nicholas looked at her carefully. ‘Why do you say that coming to me was the last resort? If there were relatives around, I assume—’

‘That I would have rushed to them for help first. Of course.’ Silly of me to assume that he might have been showing some kind of personal interest in her and, indirectly, in Amy. ‘There’s no one else, Mr Kendall. Jenny was all I had.’ Saying it out loud made it sound bleak and lonely. She remembered how it had been when her parents had died. She remembered that lost, exposed feeling, but she had been so much younger then and there had been Jenny to hold her hand and help her through. Now there was no one to shield her from the loneliness, waiting to strike.

‘Our parents passed away when I was twelve within months of one another. As for relatives, I think there’s an uncle somewhere in Australia and my father had a couple of cousins in Canada, but we never kept in touch. Is that sufficient background history, or would you like to know more? Maybe I could throw in my blood group for good measure?’ She was annoyed with him for prising information out of her which she had grown accustomed to keeping to herself.

‘To cut a long story short, there was no one else to turn to. And, anyway...’ She halted, unsure of what to say next.

‘And anyway?’

‘I happen to think that it’s important for Amy to eventually know who her father is,’ Leigh told him defiantly. ‘Even if it’s an intrusion on your lifestyle.’

‘Let’s just suppose that I give you the benefit of the doubt for a minute, that I actually believe what you’re telling me, don’t you find it a bit odd that you only suddenly thought it important nearly a year and a half after the event?’

‘She’s only seven...’

‘You were waiting until?’

She looked at him with deep dislike. Did he believe a word of what she was saying? Was he simply humouring her? Allowing her to have her say until his coffee was finished, whereupon he would coolly look her up and down and tell her to be on her way? She couldn’t even tell whether she was getting through to him at all because, whatever he said, his face remained unreadable.

‘Until she was a bit older.’ Leigh took a mouthful of her coffee, which was now tepid and quite disgusting. ‘Until she was more capable of...understanding...’

‘Thoughtful of you.’

What would it feel like to throw her tepid coffee all over him? she wondered. Would it wipe that expression of cynical self-assurance off his face?

‘Why did you say that you were willing to hear what I’ve got to say, Mr Kendall? You don’t want to hear a word I’ve got to say. You want to dig a hole, chuck me in, cover me with earth and then walk away, wiping your hands.’

‘What did your sister tell you?’

‘You were right,’ Leigh said eventually. ‘She was driven when you met her in Majorca. Not herself. I knew at the time. I vaguely recall that she was miserable, but she didn’t confide in me. I guess she had always been in the role of my protector so she felt that she had to protect me even from her own unhappiness. It turns out that...’ She sighed and ran her fingers through her short hair so that any attempt at neatness was instantly lost.

‘She and Roy had been trying for a family. Before they were married, even. Apparently. I knew nothing about all of this. The week before she had been to the doctor for the results of tests. It turned out that there was a problem. Roy couldn’t father a child. Jenny was devastated. Having children meant everything to her. In hospital she told me that she had even started buying pregnancy magazines in anticipation of the large family she and Roy were going to have.’

‘Are you trying to tell me that she went on holiday with the express purpose of mating with a suitable specimen? ’ His mouth twisted cruelly, and Leigh shot him a helpless look from under her lashes.

‘Are you hearing what I’m saying? She was desperately unhappy when she went on that one-week break. She needed to be away from Roy, needed to think, but the more she thought the more unhappy she became, and for the first time in her life she did something totally out of character for her. She had a one-night stand.

‘As luck would have it, she got pregnant and decided to keep Amy. She said that she and Roy discussed it. They went through a rough patch for a while but he loved her and in the end he accepted the circumstances. He loved Amy as though she were his own.’ She drew a deep breath. ‘Look, I’m sorry that man was you. I’m sorry that you’ve had all this foisted onto you. It must be a nightmare. It’s also a fact of life.’

‘Why do you think that I would believe a word of what you’re telling me?’ He looked at her coolly, assessingly, without a hint of emotion on his face.

‘Because it happens to be the truth.’

‘And now are you going to tell me why you’ve been overwhelmed by the sudden desire to fill me in?’

Temporary insanity, Leigh thought, staring at her coffee-cup, a moment of sheer madness. Frankly, you’re the last person in the world I would want to confront with this dilemma.

‘Because circumstances have changed, Mr Kendall,’ she said awkwardly.

‘In other words, you’re broke. I wondered when we would arrive at the financial angle. Never mind the ethics of letting me know of this mysterious daughter’s existence.’

He nodded imperceptibly in the direction of the door, and George wafted into the room to remove their cups and saucers. The sleeping man in the armchair was beginning to stir. Leigh could feel Nicholas drawing away from her, signalling the end of her allotted time, and she was filled with a sudden panicky desperation. As far as he was concerned, it all boiled down to money in the end after all.

‘You have a daughter, Mr Kendall, like it or not You can pretend to yourself that I’m nothing more than a cheap gold-digger and you can walk out of here and never look back, but that won’t change the fact that you fathered a child. I hope that knowledge bums a hole in your conscience for the rest of your life.’ Damn him if he thought that he would simply walk away and forget every word she’d said. Things were crashing down around her. She had swallowed quite a mouthful of humble pie, coming to this man. She would make sure that he knew it.

‘Don’t moralise to me, Miss Walker.’

‘I’ll damn well do as I please, Mr Kendall.’ She leaned forward and urgency lent her a desperate sort of courage. ‘Roy and Jenny left behind them a cartload of debt. I’ve spent the past few months lying awake every night, worrying about where the money was going to come from. I’ve struggled in a job that barely pays, I’ve struggled to be the emotional support system my niece needs and I feel as though I’ve worn myself to the bone.

‘I’ve come to you, yes, for help because I have nowhere else to go. The bank has foreclosed on the house. I don’t care about me, but there’s Amy to consider. She’s a child. She’s your child!’ She was trembling and every nerve in her body felt stretched to breaking point. She no longer cared what sort of impression she made. If she had to crawl on all fours she would do it, provided it went some way to ensuring some kind of future for Amy.

It occurred to her that there might be someone in the room who had overheard her, and she looked around surreptitiously.

‘No need,’ he told her, with less hostility in his voice than she would have expected. ‘That’s the beauty of this place. No one pays the slightest bit of attention to other people’s conversations. Even if something sensitive was screamed out to all four corners you would still be guaranteed that it would remain within these walls.’ He paused. ‘Not that I give a jot what opinion the rest of the world has of me.’

‘That must give you a great sense of freedom,’ Leigh said, distracted as much by what he had said as by his unruffled response to her slightly raised voice.

He looked at her curiously, as though trying to weigh her up.

‘You’ll understand that I will want a blood test to establish paternity.’

‘So you do agree that it’s possible that I’m telling you the truth. That I’m not some avid little gold-digger who’s shown up on your doorstep eager to see what I can cream off you.’

‘All things are possible.’ He shrugged.

‘You can have a million blood tests. They’ll back me up.’ She smiled for the first time, a secret, amused smile, and he frowned as though she had suddenly retreated to a place from which he was excluded.

‘But...?’ he asked, frowning.

‘But nothing...’ But, she thought, you won’t need one. His physical resemblance to Amy was almost scary. ‘Will you just meet her, Mr Kendall? If you choose to wash your hands of the whole matter after that, then so be it.’

She heard the supplication in her voice with mortification. It was true that she would have told Amy about her natural father in time, and would have supported her in whatever choice she made as to whether to seek him out or not. But to be reduced to presenting this man with this dilemma, forced to beg, made her cringe.

‘I’ll meet...the child,’ he said heavily.

‘When?’

‘The sooner the better, I suppose.’ He rose, and as Leigh joined him she was aware, more forcibly this time, of his height, his muscularity, the way he towered over her and made her feel small, even though she was a respectable enough height.

‘I would appreciate it,’ she said, following him out of the building into the bracing cold outside, ‘if you could—’

‘Not let the child know my relationship to her?’

Leigh nodded and pulled her jacket tightly around her. The wind whipped her skirt around her legs like clambering vines. She would have been more comfortable in her usual out-of-work attire of jeans.

‘I think we should wait and see what develops from here,’ he said, looking down at her.

He wasn’t, she realised, about to assume anything. This potentially life-changing situation with which he had been confronted did not exist, as far as he was concerned, until it was proven.

‘When would you like me to introduce you to her?’ Leigh asked shortly.

‘What about the weekend? Sunday. I’ll meet you for lunch somewhere. Where do children of that age like to eat?’ It sounded as though children were a species foreign to him.

‘Any fast-food chain,’ she told him quickly, before he could change his mind, and he frowned, as though trying to identify the name of a fast-food chain. Any fast-food chain.

‘Conversation might be a little difficult in one of those places. I know a hamburger restaurant in the Covent Garden area. I believe they serve all the usual childfriendly things, milkshakes and ice cream. She does eat...stuff like that, doesn’t she?’

‘Adores it’ Leigh smiled.

‘And who should I introduce myself as? Old friend of the family?’ His mouth twisted. ‘Distant relative?’

‘I’ll tell her that you’re a friend.’ Thank heavens, Leigh thought, that she’s only seven. Much older than that and she would be hard pressed to believe that Nicholas Kendall could be anything but a relative, so perfectly did his face mirror hers.

‘Fine.’ He continued to look at her. ‘And don’t forget what I said,’ he murmured with a warning in his voice, bending slightly so that his breath was on her face, warm and disorienting. ‘I’m no fool. Child or no child, I won’t be taken for a ride.’

‘I wouldn’t dream of it, Mr Kendall.’

‘Nicholas.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Nicholas. You might just as well call me by my first name. Mr Kendall might just be a little formal, considering I’m a long-lost family friend.’ He glanced at his watch, quickly reeled off the name of the restaurant he had in mind and the address, and with mixed feelings Leigh watched him depart in long, easy strides.

Step one, at any rate, had been accomplished. The only problem was that she had no idea what step two would entail.

She turned on her heel and on the journey back to the house she tried to work out what the options were because, whether he knew it or not, he would have no difficulty in accepting that Amy was his.

Money, of course, was the issue. She could repay him as much as she could month by month—a bit like taking out a loan with the bank. She didn’t need much to look after Amy. They would have to find a roof over their heads, something small and sensible. It hardly mattered whether it was in a fashionable district or not, just so long as wherever they lived was safe. She might at least be granted the breathing space to look for a better job, something that would make her more financially solvent.

His contribution, if he decided to help, would be a drop in the ocean to him, no doubt about it, but it could be the lifeline she and Amy so desperately needed.

It was only as she was letting herself into the house that a thought suddenly occurred to her. A very unpleasant thought. What if he decided to fight for custody of his daughter? He was wealthy and powerful, a man with quite a few guns in his armoury. What if he took one look at his offspring and decided that he would plunge into fatherhood, having been denied it for seven years?

Leigh removed her jacket and made herself a cup of tea, her body on autopilot as her mind wrestled this unforeseen possibility.

No, she told herself. Look at things in a logical manner. Nicholas Kendall was not married. He had no experience of children and, from what she had seen, he was probably the last man on the face of the earth to want any experience of them.

She had no real idea what he did for a living but, whatever it was, it doubtless ate up his time. People rarely acquired huge sums of money working in part-time jobs. No, he was probably one of those odious men who lived for their work. He probably rented a bachelor penthouse suite somewhere in Belgravia, an exquisite two-bedroom affair with a daily cleaning service. The sort of place where children and pets were banned.

I can’t let myself get embroiled in complications before they arise, she told herself. I can’t think ahead beyond what happens at the next meeting. I can’t let myself.

I just have to think of Amy.

.

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