A Billionaire for Christmas

By: Janice Maynard

One

Leo Cavallo had a headache. In fact, his whole body hurt. The drive from Atlanta to the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee hadn’t seemed all that onerous on the map, but he’d gravely miscalculated the reality of negotiating winding rural roads after dark. And given that the calendar had flipped only a handful of days into December, he’d lost daylight a long time ago.

He glanced at the clock on the dashboard and groaned as he registered the glowing readout. It was after nine. He still had no idea if he was even close to his destination. The GPS had given up on him ten miles back. The car thermometer read thirty-five degrees, which meant that any moment now the driving rain hammering his windshield might change over to snow, and he’d really be screwed. Jags were not meant to be driven in bad weather.

Sweating beneath his thin cotton sweater, he reached into the console for an antacid. Without warning, his brother’s voice popped into his head, loud and clear.

“I’m serious, Leo. You have to make some changes. You had a heart attack, for God’s sake.”

Leo scowled. “A mild cardiac event. Don’t be so dramatic. I’m in excellent physical shape. You heard the doctor.”

“Yes, I did. He said your stress levels are off the charts. And he preached heredity. Our father died before he hit forty-two. You keep this up, and I’ll be putting you in the ground right beside him…”

Leo chewed the chalky tablet and cursed when the road suddenly changed from ragged pavement to loose gravel. The wheels of his vehicle spun for purchase on the uneven surface. He crept along, straining his eyes for any signs of life up ahead.

On either side, steep hillsides boxed him in. The headlights on his car picked out dense thickets of rhododendron lining the way. Claustrophobic gloom swathed the vehicle in a cloying blanket. He was accustomed to living amidst the bright lights of Atlanta. His penthouse condo offered an amazing view of the city. Neon and energy and people were his daily fuel. So why had he agreed to voluntary exile in a state whose remote corners seemed unwelcoming at best?

Five minutes later, when he was almost ready to turn around and admit defeat, he saw a light shining in the darkness. The relief he felt was staggering. By the time he finally pulled up in front of the blessedly illuminated house, every muscle in his body ached with tension. He hoped the porch light indicated some level of available hospitality.

Pulling his plush-lined leather jacket from the backseat, he stepped out of the car and shivered. The rain had slacked off…finally. But a heavy, fog-wrapped drizzle accompanied by bone-numbing chill greeted him. For the moment, he would leave his bags in the trunk. He didn’t know exactly where his cabin was located. Hopefully, he’d be able to park closer before he unloaded.

Mud caked the soles of his expensive leather shoes as he made his way to the door of the modern log structure. It looked as if it had been assembled from one of those kits that well-heeled couples bought to set up getaway homes in the mountains. Certainly not old, but neatly put together. From what he could tell, it was built on a single level with a porch that wrapped around at least two sides of the house.

There was no doorbell that he could see, so he took hold of the bronze bear-head knocker and rapped it three times, hard enough to express his growing frustration. Additional lights went on inside the house. As he shifted from one foot to the other impatiently, the curtain beside the door twitched and a wide-eyed female face appeared briefly before disappearing as quickly as it had come.

From inside he heard a muffled voice. “Who is it?”

“Leo. Leo Cavallo,” he shouted at the door. Grinding his teeth, he reached for a more conciliatory tone. “May I come in?”

* * *

Phoebe opened her front door with some trepidation. Not because she had anything to fear from the man on the porch. She’d been expecting him for the past several hours. What she dreaded was telling him the truth.

Backing up to let him enter, she winced as he crossed the threshold and sucked all the air out of the room. He was a big man, built like a lumberjack, broad through the shoulders, and tall, topping her five-foot-nine stature by at least four more inches. His thick, wavy chestnut hair gleamed with health. The glow from the fire that crackled in the hearth picked out strands of dark gold.

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