- AUGUST 2009 -
Driven by ambition and power, Gavin Hunter had sacrificed everything that mattered—including his wife and child—for success. But when his son, Peter, needs him, Gavin drops everything and rushes across England to the desolate moors. Only, when he gets there, Gavin finds that the boy has no memory of his father and refuses to speak to anyone…except his guardian.
Filled with bitter resentment, Gavin watches Peter cling to Norah Ackroyd, a woman whose wild beauty reflects the untamed land, and whose tender touch enchants children and animals. Gavin tries to remain immune to her charms, but soon he, too, is falling under Norah's spell….
"You've simply got to face facts, Gavin. The figures don't look good. Hunter and Son is rapidly becoming a paper company—splendid on the surface, but nothing behind it but debt."
Gavin Hunter's dark brows almost met as he frowned angrily. "Hunter and Son has always been good for any amount of credit," he snapped.
The banker, who was also a friend insofar as Gavin Hunter had any friends, pulled a wry face. "That was then. This is now. The great days of property are over. Interest rates rise as prices fall. Some of your hotels are only just hanging on. Since they're mortgaged to the hilt, it won't even help you to sell them."
"I don't want to sell," Gavin snapped. "I want a small loan to keep me going. A mere quarter of a million pounds. In the past you've loaned me four times that without blinking."
"In the past you had excellent collateral to back it up.
Look, I'm not sure… What's the matter?" The banker had realized that Gavin was no longer listening to him. His attention was fixed on the television screen in the corner of the room. "Is that disturbing you? I have it on to catch the news, but I can turn it off."
"Turn the sound up," Gavin said hoarsely.
The screen was filled with a photograph of an amiable looking middle-aged man. The banker turned up the sound.
"…died today in a car crash that also killed his wife, Elizabeth. Tony Ackroyd was one of the world's best-known naturalists, a man who'd been prominent in…"
Gavin was gathering his things together, thrusting them hastily back into his briefcase. "Don't you want to talk some more?" the banker said.
"Not just now. I have urgent business to attend to."
The banker frowned, then enlightenment dawned. "Of course. Those two in the car crash—weren't they—?"
"Yes," Gavin said harshly. "They were my enemies."
As he headed north out of London he reflected that Liz hadn't always been his enemy. Once—and it was hard to imagine it now—he'd been in love with her, had swept her off her feet with his ardor and into a doomed marriage. In retrospect he understood that they'd never had a chance, although for a time they'd been happy, or so he'd thought. To all appearances they were a glorious couple, Liz with her long fair hair and ethereal beauty; Gavin with his dark good looks and his ability to turn whatever he touched into gold. They had a luxurious apartment in London, where Liz had given exquisite dinner parties. She was the perfect hostess and Gavin had been proud of her. She'd borne him a son, Peter, whom he'd loved with all the force of his proud, intense nature. He'd built his dreams around Peter, looking forward to the day when he would be the "son" in Hunter and Son.
But Liz had blown the dreams apart when she'd left him for Tony Ackroyd and stolen his four-year-old son. From that day she'd been his enemy.
He could still hear her crying, "I can't stand you any more. Business and money. Money and business. That's all you think about."
And his own reply. "I work for you and Peter."
"You're deluding yourself. You do it for yourself—and your father."
It was true he'd striven to impress his father, but that was because he had a lot to live up to. William Hunter had built up a hotel chain from nothing and reared Gavin in the belief that it was a son's duty to outstrip his father's achievements. He'd handed the business on with the implied demand for more, for bigger and better and bolder.
William was still alive, living in a convalescent home on the south coast, because that was the only place where his frail lungs could breathe. But his brain had stayed vigorous enough for him to bombard his son with a stream of letters containing unsolicited advice, most of it useless because his knowledge was out-of-date. Gavin had fielded the advice while expanding the business his own way. The strain had been considerable, but he'd trusted Liz to understand. And she'd failed him.
Cuckolded, he thought, taking a bitter satisfaction in the robust, old-fashioned word. Cuckolded by a sissy, a man with long hair and a beard, who went about with a vague air as if he didn't know what day it was—a man who talked to animals, of all things! "Tony's a better man than you," Liz had flung at him. But that had been just spite.
He stepped on the gas. He wanted to get as near as possible to Strand House before the light faded.
Strand House. He could almost see it before him, exactly as he'd first set eyes on it, the great eighteenth-century mansion looking out over the sea. As a boy William had worked there, doing carpentry for the aristocratic family who owned it. Later, when he'd made his fortune, it had been his dream to own the place. He hadn't succeeded, but Gavin did. The family had fallen on hard times and he'd badgered them until they sold up. The proudest day of Gavin's life had been when he could show William the title deeds in his possession. But even then William had found cause for complaint.
"Why isn't it in your sole name?" he'd snapped.
"For tax reasons, Dad," Gavin had explained patiently. "It'll be a lot cheaper if it's in Liz's name too. Don't worry. It's only on paper."
But it hadn't worked out like that. Liz had fallen in love with the house and the sea, wanted to make a home there. He'd explained that their home had to be in London.
"That's not a home," she'd told him. "That's just a base for exhibiting to people you want to overwhelm. I want a home."
Because he didn't understand her, he'd tried to pass it off as a joke. "Don't people say home is where the heart is?"
And she'd answered, in terrible bitterness, "That's for people who have hearts, Gavin."
He'd concealed his hurt and stood his ground. Strand House was going to be the jewel of the Hunter hotel chain. He had the plans all drawn up: the indoor swimming pool created from the huge conservatory, the sauna in what was now the billiard room, and the golf course that would occupy the grounds, making use of the beautiful lawns that the family had tended for centuries.
But before he could put the plans into effect Liz had run away, taking Peter. As a final twist of the screw she'd betrayed him once more, claiming "her" half of the house in the divorce settlement. He'd fought her to the last ditch, but he'd lost. The court had awarded her half of Strand House with the right to live there, provided she paid him rent for his half. It had also awarded her custody of Peter.
He'd driven through the night then, as he was doing now, and arrived at the house like a maddened bull. It was early in the day, but there was no sign of Liz or "that sponger," as he referred to Tony in his head. He'd charged through the house and out again onto the ground, searching madly, driven by a terrible fear that they'd taken his son abroad.
At last he'd found someone who looked like the gardener's boy, dressed in shabby jeans, sweater and an ancient hat, and digging a trench in the middle of a perfect lawn. He drew an angry breath at the thought of his ruined golf course. "Hey you!" he snapped. "What do you think you're doing?"
The battered hat had lifted and he found himself staring into the face of a young woman who couldn't have been more than eighteen. She had a curious face, not beautiful but full of life and personality, with a hint of humor lurking not far below the surface. Her only claim to good looks lay in her eyes, which were large, brown and warm. For the rest, her nose was too long, her mouth too wide and her chin too stubborn, yet the total effect was oddly pleasing. Or would have been, if Gavin had been in a mood to be pleased. Right now her mood seemed as belligerent as his own. "Are you talking to me?" she enquired.
"Yes I am. I asked what you thought you were doing to that lawn."
"I'm digging it up," she explained patiently. "What does it look as if I'm doing?"
"Don't give me any cheek. Do you know how many years it took to get that lawn perfect?"
"Yes, and it's about time somebody did something useful to it," she countered. "It's nice and sunny here. Ideal for vegetables."
He gritted his teeth. "Where's your employer?"
A faint smile that he hadn't understood until later flitted across her curved lips. "Do you mean Mr. Ackroyd?"
"Stop playing stupid—"
"I'm not playing," she declared innocently. "You'd be amazed how stupid I can be—when it suits me."
If he hadn't been so angry and upset he might have heeded the warning, but all he saw was that he was being thwarted again, something he always found intolerable, but now more than ever. "I warn you I'm losing my patience," he growled.
She nodded. "I can see that. I don't suppose you had much to begin with."
"Do you usually go around shouting at people like an army sergeant? Should I jump? Stand to attention? Sorry. Can't oblige."
"Why don't you try a little plain civility?" he snapped.
"Why don't you? You storm into my home and start barking orders—"
"Your home? What the devil do you mean by that?"
"It belongs to the woman my father's going to marry, and we're all living in it together. Is that plain enough?"
"Yes, it's plain enough. And since we're going in for plain speaking, it's my turn. I take it your father is Tony Ackroyd, and the woman he's going to marry is Elizabeth Hunter, my wife."
Her marvelous eyes widened, and the words came rushing out of her. "Your wife? Good grief! Grating Gavin!"
"I beg your pardon?" he said ominously.
"Nothing," she said hastily. "I didn't say anything."
"You said ‘grating Gavin.' I should like to know why."
"Look, it's just a silly name…" she floundered.
"Are you telling me that my wife calls me that?"
"Of course not… not exactly… this is…"
"Does she or doesn't she? Or are you too stupid to know the difference?"
The color flew to her cheeks. "You're a real charmer, aren't you? All right, if you must know, Liz said everything you do grates on her, and I—"
"You invented the name," he finished. "And you have the nerve to lecture me about manners."
"You weren't meant to know about it. How could I dream you'd ever come here?"
"I came to see my wife. She still is my wife until the divorce is finalized, which won't be for another two weeks. Let me further make it clear that she doesn't own Strand House, only half of it. The other half belongs to me."
She frowned. "Only until my father buys you out, surely?"
"Buy me out?" he demanded with bitter hilarity. "Do you know what this place is worth? Of course you don't. I know your kind—and his. Floating through life on a ‘green' cloud, with no idea of reality. There's no way your father could afford it, even if I were prepared to sell, which I'm not."
"What on earth can you gain by refusing to sell?"
"That's for me to say."
She stood back to regard him. "Oh, I see," she said cynically.
He knew it was unwise to continue this conversation. He didn't owe this impertinent urchin any explanation, and freezing dignity would be his best course. But he couldn't manage it. There was something provoking about her that drove him on. "What do you think you see?" he demanded.
"You're going to be a dog in the manger, aren't you? You can't have Strand House yourself, but you can make sure Liz can't fully enjoy it."
"Young woman, I don't know what you think gives you the right to make quick, cheap judgments without knowing the full facts, but let me tell you you're way out of line."
"Oh, the truth hurts, does it?"
"It isn't the truth."
"Oh, yes, it is. Why should you want to hang onto any part of this place, unless it's for the pleasure of making poor Liz miserable?"
"I'm hanging onto it because it's mine. She has no right to any part of it."
"That's not what the title deeds say."
"The title deeds are a formality for tax purposes, and Liz knew that perfectly well."
"If all your wife meant to you was a tax dodge, I'm not surprised she left you. She should have left you years ago."
"Another glib judgment made in ignorance."
"It's not my judgment, it's hers. Why don't you just let her go? Let my father buy you out."
"He couldn't do it in a million years. He only offers to buy me out because he knows there's no fear of my taking him up on it. He knew a good thing when he met Liz, didn't he? A rich woman who could walk away from her husband with a lot of property."
She paled. "How dare you speak about my father like that? He's an honorable man, and he loves Liz."
"Does he? Or does he love what she can bring him?"
"You've got no right to say that. You don't know him."
"I know he stole my wife, my house and my son. What else do I need to know?"
"He didn't steal your wife. He won her by offering her the love you couldn't, the only currency that counts, only nobody ever told you that, did they? If you'd known about love you might still have your wife, your house and your son."
"Don't tell me I don't love my son. I'll be damned if I'll let him be brought up by Tony Ackroyd."
"He'll be lucky if he is. There isn't a better father in the world."
"The best father is his own father."
"He's four years old, for pity's sake. How can you try to snatch a child so young away from his mother?"
Through the confused mass of pain and bewilderment that possessed him, he couldn't find the words that would express his true feelings. All he could manage to do was cry out, "Because he's mine."
It was the wrong thing to say. He wasn't so insensitive that he couldn't realize that. But no other words would come.
He saw her looking at him in contemptuous disbelief. "The house is your. Liz is yours. Peter is yours. It's all property to you, isn't it?"
"No, it isn't," he snapped. "Peter and I…" He stopped. It would have been hard enough to speak of his bittersweet love for his son with a sympathetic listener. With this judgmental young woman it was impossible. "Never mind," he said, unaware of how plainly his thoughts had been revealed on his face. "Just tell me where I can find my wife and son," he said.
From the book INSTANT FATHER by Lucy Gordon.
Copyright 2009 by Lucy Gordon
Cover Copyright © 2008 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited. ® and tm are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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