Taking the lift up to his penthouse apartment, Jeff felt glad to be home. The vast lateral flat was his pride and joy. With its elegant sash windows, high ceilings, parquet floor and spectacular views across the river, it felt more like a museum than a private residence. Over the years Jeff had filled the place with priceless antiquities, treasures from his travels, both legally and illegally acquired. The shelves were crammed with everything from ancient Egyptian vases, to first edition Victorian novels, to mummified pygmy heads creepily pickled in jars. There were coins and statues, fossils and burial robes, fragments of arrowheads and an entire Nordic rune stone mounted on a plinth. There was no rhyme or reason to Jeff’s collection, other than these were all unique items, things with a history that he loved. An ex-lover once suggested that Jeff surrounded himself with things to compensate for the lack of human closeness in his life, an observation that irritated him deeply. Probably because it was true. Or at least it had been, before he found Tracy again, and Nick came into his life.
Wandering into the kitchen, Jeff slipped a Keurig coffee packet into the machine and walked out onto his terrace while it brewed. Since giving up drinking, coffee had replaced whisky as his nighttime ritual. For some reason it never seemed to keep him awake, and childishly he enjoyed the gadgetiness of the new generation of coffeemakers, all the shiny chrome and buttons to press and the perfectly frothed milk.
It was the week before Christmas, and London was in the grip of a cold snap that covered everything with a sparkling gray frost. There was no snow, yet, but the park still looked like a Victorian Christmas card, timeless and peaceful and lovely. Jeff had always loved Christmas. It made him feel like a kid again, dreaming of candy and presents with his nose pressed against the store windows. Then again, as Tracy used to remind him, Jeff had never really stopped being a kid. The only difference was that as an adult he’d exchanged gazing through store windows for breaking in through the roof. “You’ve become a permanent fixture on Santa’s naughty list,” she used to say.
Smiling at the memory, and still half thinking about Nicholas—he missed him at Christmas more than usual—Jeff pulled out his phone and, on a whim, called Tracy’s number. Irritatingly it went to voicemail.
“It’s me,” he said awkwardly. Jeff had never liked leaving messages. “Look, I really want to see Nick. I know we said to give it some time, but I want to come out there. It’s been too long and I . . . I miss him. Call me back, OK?”
He hung up feeling annoyed with himself and went back inside to retrieve his coffee. He should have waited for Tracy to answer. Things always went better when they spoke in person.
A loud buzz from the doorbell made him jump.
Who the hell could that be at this time? Jeff’s stomach suddenly lurched. Surely not even Dean Klinnsman could have tracked him down that quickly. Or maybe he could. Someone at the club could have given him my address. It would only take a phone call.
Jeff darted into his bedroom, unlocked the drawer on his bedside table and pulled out a handgun. Keeping his back to the walls, he edged towards the front door of the flat and peeped nervously through the spy hole.
“Jesus,” he exhaled, opening the door. “You scared the crap out of me.”
Lianna stood alone in the hallway, wrapped up in a dark gray cashmere coat and winter boots.
“I thought it was your fiancée. Or one of his henchmen. Come to finish me off.”
“No,” Lianna smiled lasciviously. “Just me.”
Undoing the belt of her coat she opened it slowly, her eyes never leaving Jeff’s. Other than the boots, she was completely, gloriously naked.
“Where were we?” she asked, advancing towards Jeff like an Amazon goddess, her pupils dilating with lust.
For the tiniest fraction of a second, Jeff thought about how very, very foolish he would be to sleep with Dean Klinnsman’s girlfriend. Then he grabbed Lianna around the waist with both hands and pulled her into the apartment.
As long as Tracy Whitney was alive, Jeff Stevens’s heart was spoken for.
The rest of his body, however, was quite another matter.
TRACY LOOKED AROUND THE familiar walls of David Hargreaves’s office. Christmas cards from staff and grateful former pupils covered every available surface. School would be out in a few days.
If only Nick could have controlled himself a little longer, Tracy thought desperately.
She’d gotten to know the principal of Nick’s middle school almost as well as she’d known his elementary school head, Mrs. Jensen. Poor Mrs. Jensen. It was a wonder the woman wasn’t in a sanitarium somewhere, banging her head quietly against a padded wall, after everything Nicholas had put her through.
“The thing is, Mrs. Schmidt, it’s not simply a question of money. What Nicholas did was a blatant act of disrespect.”
Tracy nodded seriously and tried to rid her mind of the image of Mr. Hargreaves farting loudly into what he believed to be an empty corridor.
Nick, seated beside his mother, adopted a hurt look.
“What about artistic expression? Our teacher told us only last week that art knows no boundaries.”
“Be quiet!” Tracy and Principal Hargreaves said in unison.
Nick’s decision to break into the faculty recreation room after school hours and paint a series of cartoons on the walls, depicting various teachers in caricature, was likely to mark the end of his career at John Dee Middle School. He and an unnamed accomplice had painted the teachers engaging in different “humorous” situations (the mean, overweight math teacher, Mrs. Finch, was re-imagined by Nick as a hot dog, lying in a bun and being squirted with ketchup by the football coach). As a piece of art it actually wasn’t bad. But as Principal Hargreaves said, that wasn’t the point.
“I’ll talk to the board over the weekend,” the principal told Tracy. “But to be frank, I don’t see that we have much wiggle room here. Nicholas has had a lot of chances.”
Principal Hargreaves didn’t want to lose the beautiful Mrs. Schmidt as a parent. Tracy’s son might be a tear away, but she was a lovely woman. More importantly she’d donated very generously to the school over the years, and was offering to “more than compensate” for the damage Nick had caused to school property this time. But his hands were tied.
Tracy said, “I know. And I appreciate your even discussing it. Please let the board know that I’m grateful.”
After the meeting, Tracy waited till they were in the car and safely off campus before turning furiously on Nick.
“I don’t understand you. You have to go to school, Nicholas. It’s the law. If they kick you out of here, you’ll just have to go somewhere else. Somewhere farther away, and stricter, where you don’t have any friends.”
“You could homeschool me,” Nick suggested guilelessly. “That would be cool.”
“Oh no.” Tracy shook her head. “There is zero chance of that happening, mister. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.”
Homeschooling Nicholas would be like trying to teach deportment to a newly captured chimpanzee.
“I could send you to boarding school,” Tracy countered. “How about that?”
Nick looked aghast. “You wouldn’t!”
No, Tracy thought. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t live without you for one day.
“If you did I’d run away. Why do I need school anyway? Uncle Jeff left school at twelve. He learned all he needed to know on his Uncle Willie’s carnival.”
“Uncle Jeff is not a good role model.”
“Why not? He’s rich. He’s happy. He has a great business, traveling the world.”
“That’s . . . not the point,” said Tracy, increasingly desperately. She didn’t want to talk about Jeff and his “great business.”
“Well what about Blake?” said Nick. “He’s a good role model, isn’t he?”
“Well he went to work on his daddy’s ranch when he was my age. Full-time.”
They’d reached home now. It was still only lunchtime. Tracy debated sending Nick to his bedroom—minus his computer, phone and any other means of escape—but the thought of him stuck indoors all day, brooding, didn’t seem right. Instead, she sent him out with two of the hands to go and clear the snow drifts that had built up on the high pastures.
“You want to work on a ranch full-time?” she told a stricken-looking Nick as she pushed him into the back of the truck. “You may as well get started now.”
With any luck a few days of backache and chilblains would cure of him of that romantic notion at least. Still, Tracy wasn’t looking forward to explaining Nicholas’s latest shenanigans to Blake Carter. She could already hear the old cowboy’s “I told you so” ringing in her ears.