A Pawn in the Playboy's Game

By: Cathy Williams


  ‘DON’T KNOW WHAT you’re doing here.’ Roberto Falcone glared at his son. He had shuffled to the front door and now he remained standing in front of it like a bouncer blocking entry to a club. ‘Told you not to bother coming and meant it.’

  Alessandro felt that familiar tension invade his body, the way it always did on those occasions when he was in his father’s company. Usually, though, they at least managed pleasantries before he felt like spinning on his heel and walking as fast as he could in the opposite direction. This time, there was no polite surface small talk and Alessandro braced himself for an impossibly difficult weekend.

  Which they would both have to endure because there was no choice.

  ‘Are you going to let me in or are we going to have this conversation on the doorstep? Because if we are, I’ll get my coat from the car. I’d rather not die from frostbite just yet.’

  ‘You won’t die from frostbite,’ Roberto Falcone scoffed. ‘It’s practically tropical here.’

  Alessandro didn’t bother to argue. He’d had a lot of experience when it came to disagreeing with his father. Roberto Falcone might be eighty years old but there was nothing he gave up without a fight, and arguing about whether eight degrees Celsius counted as cold or not was just one of those things. He was a hardy soul who lived in Scotland and thought that blizzard conditions were a bracing challenge. Real men cleared snowdrifts half-naked and barefoot! His son was a softie who lived in London and switched on the central heating the second the sun went behind a cloud.

  And never the twain would meet.

  Which was why duty visits were limited to three times a year and lasted as long as it took for the limited well of polite conversation to run dry.

  Except this was more than a duty visit and he had known that his father wasn’t going to make things easy.

  ‘I’ll get my coat.’

  ‘Don’t bother. Now that you’ve landed here, I suppose I don’t have much choice but to let you in, but if you think that I’m going to be heading down to London with you, then you’ve got another think coming. I’m not budging.’

  In the cold, gathering gloom, they stared at one another, Alessandro’s expression veiled, his father’s fiercely determined.

  ‘We’ll discuss this when I’m inside,’ Alessandro said. ‘Why have you answered the door? Where’s Fergus?’

  ‘It’s the weekend. Man deserves a break.’

  ‘You had a stroke six months ago and you’re still recovering from a fractured pelvis. The man’s paid enough to give up his breaks.’

  Roberto scowled but Alessandro didn’t back down. Frankly, this wasn’t the time for pussyfooting round the issue. Like it or not, his father was going to return to London with him in three days’ time. The contents of the house could be packed up and shipped south once the place had been vacated.

  His mind was made up and once Alessandro had made his mind up on anything, he was not open to discussion, far less persuasion. His father could no longer cope with the rolling Victorian mansion, even if he could afford an army of hired help if he chose. Neither could he cope with the acres of lawns and garden. He liked plants. Alessandro would introduce him to the marvels of Kew Gardens.

  The brutal truth was that Roberto Falcone was now frail, whether he wanted to admit it or not, and he needed somewhere small, somewhere closer to Alessandro, somewhere in London.

  ‘I’ll get my bag,’ Alessandro said abruptly. ‘You go in and I’ll join you in the sitting room. I take it you haven’t dispatched all the help...because you felt they needed some time out from doing what they’re so handsomely paid to do?’

  ‘You might be lord of that manor of yours in London,’ Roberto retorted, ‘and I wouldn’t think of questioning you if you chose to give whoever works for you a weekend off, but this is my manor and I can do whatever I want.’

  ‘Let’s not kick off this weekend on an argument,’ Alessandro said heavily. He looked at the elderly man in front of him, still leonine in appearance with his thick head of steel-grey hair, his piercing dark eyes and his impressive height, at six foot one only a couple of inches shorter than him. The only hint of his frailty was the walking stick and, of course, a thick wad of medical notes residing in the hospital ten miles due west.

  ‘Freya is here. There’s food in the kitchen, which is where you will find me. Had I known you were going to descend on me, I might have asked her to prepare something a little less simple, but you’re here now and salmon and potatoes is going to have to do.’

  ‘You knew I was coming,’ Alessandro pointed out patiently. A sharp gust of wind, carrying the sort of bitter cold rarely experienced in London, blew his dark hair away from his face. ‘I emailed you.’

  ‘Must have slipped my mind.’

  Clenching his jaw in pure frustration, Alessandro watched as his father shuffled away, leaving the front door wide open.

  The move to London was going to be a big step, for both of them. They barely had anything to say to one another. Lord only knew how more frequent meetings were going to play out, but there was no way he could continue making laborious trips to the depths of Scotland every time his father had a mishap, and there were no siblings with whom he could share the burden.

  Just him. An only child shunted off to boarding school at the age of seven, returning back to their vast, cold mansion every holiday, where nannies and cooks and cleaners had picked up the role of parent because his father had rarely been in evidence, appearing only at the end of the day when they had dined at opposite ends of the formal dining table, waited on by the very people with whom Alessandro had spent his day.

  Until, of course, he had become old enough to begin spending the occasional holidays with friends. His father had not once objected. Alessandro suspected that he had probably been quietly relieved. There was only so much polite conversation to be made across the length of a twenty-seat table.

  The polite conversation was still made but at least now Alessandro could take it in his stride, at least he had stopped trying to find reasons behind his father’s coldness, stopped wondering whether things might have been different had he remarried after the death of Muriel Falcone, stopped trying not to be a disappointment. That particular youthful sentiment had long disappeared.

  Hitching his overnight bag over his shoulder and remotely locking his glossy black SUV, Alessandro decided that he would have to find some hobbies for his father the second he arrived in London.

  Hobbies that would take him out of the luxurious three-bedroom ground-floor apartment in a small, portered Georgian block, which had been bought for him. A man with hobbies would be a happy man. Or at least a relatively invisible one. Too much visibility was not going to work for either of them.

  Returning to Standeth House, for Alessandro, was like returning to a mausoleum. Same cold feel, although now that it would shortly be put on the market he found that he could better appreciate the impressive flagstoned hallway and all the period features that he would never have dreamed of having in anywhere he personally owned but which, he conceded, had a certain something.

  And, with as much money as you could fling a stick at, it had been well maintained. His father had been born into wealth, had maintained and increased it in his lifetime and had not stinted when it came to spending it on his surroundings. He had always been generous financially if parsimonious when it came to everything else.

  He found his father in the kitchen, where, despite what he had said, there was no housekeeper.

  Alessandro frowned. ‘You said Freya would be here to take care of the food.’

  Roberto looked at his son from under grey, bushy brows. ‘Left at four. Note on the cooker jogged my memory. Forgot to mention it.’ He ladled a generous portion of food onto his plate and went to the kitchen table, leaving Alessandro to help himself. ‘Sick dog. Had to take it to the vet. It happens. And before you launch into a conversation about how you’ve come here to tear me away from my house and my land, eat some food and talk about something else. Been months since you ventured up here. You must have something to talk about aside from rescuing me from my old age.’

  ‘Work’s fine.’ Alessandro looked at the slab of salmon on his plate with distaste. Freya was in her mid-sixties and had been his father’s cook for the past fifteen years. She was as thin as a rake, only smiled on high days and bank holidays and would never be asked to cook for the queen. Or anyone with halfway decent tastebuds. Her productions were as spartan as she was. Potatoes, some vegetables and fish, which were unadorned with anything that could fall under the heading of tasty.

  ‘I’ve added a niche publishing house to my portfolio, along with three small hotels on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s a little comic relief from my IT companies and telecommunications.’ He might have benefited from being the son of a wealthy man, might have been to the finest schools, been given the most pocket money, treated to the fastest car at an age when fast cars and young boys should never have had even a nodding acquaintance, but he had refused point-blank to show the slightest interest in his father’s empire. When it came to earning a living, Alessandro had always known that he would go it without any help from his austere and distant parent.

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