Home > The Story of Son(2)

The Story of Son(2)
Author: J.R. Ward

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 Tech-nitron 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 rapel-ling 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?"

"Excuse—er, no."

"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.

Claire notarized the signature, Fletcher signed as witness, and then the documents went back into the briefcase.

Miss Leeds coughed a little. "Thank you for driving all this way. I know it was an inconvenience, but I do so appreciate it."

Claire looked at the woman lying in the sea of frothy white lace.

This is a deathbed, she thought. And the Grim Reaper is standing close by. Tapping his foot and checking his watch.

It was hard not to feel like a heel. Man, she was a certified, cast-iron, career bitch, worrying about a couple of lost hours when it seemed as if Miss Leeds had so few of them left.

"It was my pleasure."

"Now the tea," Miss Leeds said.

Fletcher wheeled a brass cart over to the chair and poured what smelled like Earl Grey into a porcelain cup.

"Sugar, madam?" he asked.

"Yes, thanks." She hated tea, but the sugar hit would make swallowing it palatable. When Fletcher presented the stuff to her, she noticed there was only one cup. "You aren't having anything, Miss Leeds?"

"None for me, I'm afraid. Doctor's orders."

Claire took a sip. "What kind of Earl Grey is this? It tastes different than I've had before."

"Do you like it?"

"Actually, I do."

When she finished the cup, Miss Leeds closed her eyes with something that seemed oddly like relief and Fletcher took away the empty cup.

"Well, I think I'd better go, Miss Leeds."

"My son is going to like you," the old woman whispered. "He's waiting for you."

Claire blinked and called on all her tact. "I'm afraid I have to head back to the city. Perhaps I can meet him some other time?"

"He needs to meet you now."

Claire blinked again and heard her father's refrain in her head: The client is always right. "If it's important to you, I could . . ." Claire swallowed. "I, ah . . . I could . . ."

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