“I’ll take the car round to the exit, sir. We’ll meet you there.”
“Fine. Just give me an hour.”
Adrian sounded frustrated—he hadn’t even bothered to look back inside the car at his driver and bodyguard. The door slammed shut and he disappeared through the entrance to Blackwood Gardens.
“Wait a couple of minutes then I’ll head after him.” Mike was in no mood to let his boss wander through the local park at six o’clock in the evening. He was paid to protect the guy 24/7 and he couldn’t do that if he didn’t know where he was. “I damn well hate him going awol like this.”
“Well don’t let him spot you. He’s had some bad news and needs some space. He’ll go mad if he finds out you’ve followed him,” piped up Nick, the aging chauffeur, who was much more accustomed to Adrian’s need to be outside and alone. It didn’t arise too often, but he had just been told that his close friend had been killed in a car crash. The fact Adrian cancelled all his appointments in the capital today was a clear indication he had taken the news badly.
“Don’t tell me how to do my job. There’s an opening about a hundred yards from the exit. Look out for me there before driving to the gate.”
With that the thirty-year-old ex-army sergeant climbed out of the car and furtively made his way into the park.
The September sunshine pierced through the rich green canopy of sweet chestnuts and beech which fringed the wide pathway. Adrian took time to breathe in the fresh, cool air, and admire the sprays of sunshine hitting the gravel beneath his feet. A squirrel shot up the rugged bark of an old tree trunk, scurrying along the branches as if desperate to hide some loot he’d pocketed.
The distraction helped ease Adrian’s temper. He was furious with his friend for leaving him. And leaving a wife who was far too young to be finding herself a widow. They said Liam had been driving too fast around a sharp bend. Or perhaps he was just unlucky that the articulated truck had taken a wide berth and veered onto his side of the road. It didn’t really matter. The end result was the same. Liam was dead and Michelle had lost her husband, just like that.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Adrian looked down at something tugging his trouser leg. Then he looked up at the middle-aged woman who had just spoken. He realised she had just spoken to him.
“Ben, don’t do that.”
The woman admonished a young boy, maybe about five, Adrian guessed. He didn’t have anything to do with kids, so he had no idea how old Ben was, but the boy was still pulling at his leg.
“He’s standing on it!”
Filled with more dread than alarm, Adrian lifted his foot, the leg of which had been released, and instinctively examined the bottom of his shoe. Bloody dog owners! He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Ha, no, don’t worry about that,” said the woman. “He’s talking about a mushroom. He’s mad on them and I think you may have just squashed one. It’s been quite a year for them.”
At this point Ben was on his knees, using his hands to attempt to revive a fungus that was indeed squashed.
Adrian looked down at the boy. “Er, is it all right?”
The boy ignored Adrian. Instead the mother came to his aid.
“I’m sure it’s fine.” She turned to her son, pulling the reluctant child to his feet. “Come on, Ben, we had best be getting home now or we’ll be late for tea.”
“It’s not dead, mum. You need to watch where you treading.”
Wide eyes and a confident stance dared Adrian to tread on another mushroom. The man decided not to take up the challenge. The boy looked ferocious for a five, or whatever, year-old. The mother on the other hand…Adrian was reminded of a night of passion he shared with a woman he didn’t know, one for whom he had paid a lot of money. And it had been several weeks ago, too long… Maybe this woman— He rebuked himself for the thought and turned to the boy.
“Perhaps I need a guide to walk with me. You know, to make sure I don’t tread on any more.” He glanced at the woman. “I see we’re walking in the same direction. Do you mind?”
Walking with strange men in the park definitely wasn’t a good idea. The fact this guy was wearing a pinstriped suit and the shiniest shoes Caroline had ever seen, not to mention sporting rich chestnut brown hair, shouldn’t make any difference. But she just nodded.
“Right,” exclaimed Ben, “I’ll go in front,” and he strode off, clearly enjoying his role as chief guide.
“He’ll make quite a forest ranger,” Adrian said.
“Yes, he loves being outdoors and he’s ecstatic when they do forest school activities at his primary school.” Caroline gazed for a moment at two deep brown eyes. They looked tired and a bit sad. “I hope we’re not slowing you down.”
Their pace had slowed, mainly because Ben had become distracted by a large white mushroom growing on the side of one of the beech trunks.
“Not at all. I’m glad of the distraction.”
“Having a bad day?”
“You could say that. Although it’s my friend’s wife who’s having the worst day.”
“Oh.” Images of an illicit affair, two naked bodies wrapped around each other, her husband—his best friend—coming home and catching them in bed together…Caroline’s imagination was swirling around in her usual fantasy land. “Why’s that then? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Her husband was killed in a car accident this morning.”
“How dreadful. I’m sorry to hear that. Are you going to comfort her?” Stop it! Stop it! Feeling somewhat guilty, and heartless, Caroline tried to forget the earlier images.
“She’s three hundred miles away, so not yet. And to be honest I wasn’t all that close to her. Liam was my friend. We met at university. It’s a cruel waste of life and at twenty-four his wife shouldn’t be a widow.”
“No, of course not. But we do survive.”
The woman’s voice had become barely audible. Adrian stopped and stared at her. His eyes shot over to Ben who had resumed his inspection of the pathway ahead, before refocusing on the mother. His look must have asked the question he couldn’t quite get his mouth to.
“I was widowed four weeks before Ben was born. It was a car accident too, and at the time I wished I had been with him.” Her eyes turned to her son. “But I wouldn’t be without Ben now.”
“Is there another man? Oh, that is insensitive of me…”
“It’s okay. No, there’s no one else. You have to find someone really special when they have to play the role of father and boyfriend. All the men I’ve met haven’t been up to the job.”
Caroline attempted to smile but she didn’t quite pull it off.
“Hey! I think he’s following you!”
All eyes turned to Ben.
Including Mike’s, even though he was fifty yards to the left, in an adjoining field, and partially hidden by the trees. Shit.
“What the fu—er, I mean, what are you doing?”
Mike began to sidle over to his boss, before resigning himself to the fact he had been rumbled by the young schoolboy, and broke into a stride.
“I’m sorry, sir. I just came to let you know the car was waiting.”
Adrian stared at the direction from which Mike had come and then looked in the opposite direction towards the exit. Mike knew he hadn’t got away with it.
Adrian frowned. “Go and tell Nick I’ll be ten minutes.”
Caroline watched Mike saunter off, like a kid who knew he shouldn’t have climbed that tree and a telling off would be waiting for him when he got home.
“Sir?” she enquired, her curiosity piqued, turning her attention back to Adrian.
“My name’s Caroline, by the way.”
He smiled. “Adrian, Adrian DeVeton.”
“Of DeVeton diamonds?”
“As they say, you can’t choose your relatives.” His eyes twinkled. “I’m afraid I have to go now, but—” He glanced at his watch. “—would you and Ben like a lift home?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble, believe me. You’ve helped to improve my mood, and your son has helped me save the mushrooms. The car will be waiting at the gate for us. My bodyguard may have to frisk you though.”