2. Root Of All Evil
“Leila!” Mathilde cried as the younger woman met her at the door to the Charles estate. If Leila didn’t know any better, she would have thought that Mathilde was already sampling the champagne she probably had flown in from France for the celebration tonight. Mathilde. She was sometimes over the top with her gestures and parties.
“Hi, Mathilde,” Leila’s voice rang out. She had long gotten over Mathilde’s insistence on calling her by her first name. Mattie liked to think of herself as ‘just one of the girls’- even if she was twice her daughter’s and daughter’s best friend’s age.
“My dear, it’s so good to see you again,” Mathilde told her, giving her a kiss on each cheek. “It’s been ages!”
“Blame your daughter,” Leila told Mattie pointedly with a wry smile. “She’s impossible to get hold of and when we do hang out it’s usually at her house since she’s got Mason to care for.”
“Hey, Leila,” another female voice called out.
Looking over at Constance, she could see that the woman was pregnant. Her baby bump looked to be only four to five months along if Leila had to guess.
Leila couldn’t say she was friends with Constance, but they were acquaintances that got along, so she gave her a hug and a ‘congratulations’ as she wandered deeper into the opulent home.
“How far along are you?” she asked Constance as they walked towards the sitting room. A lot of noise was coming from it and much of it had all to do with a squealing Lizzie and mumbling, babbling Mason.
“Four and a half months,” Constance told her, rubbing her belly slightly. “I think we are going to find out the sex at the next appointment so don’t even ask yet. I’m tired of telling everyone I don’t know.”
Walking into the sitting room, the large space was packed with people. Ramon had brought along Mariana with his three children who were entertaining the squealing younger ones, Lizzie and Mason. Carl and Violet were already there and watching the proceedings as ten-year-old Luis Guttierez showed Lizzie and Mason a magic trick he had perfected only the week before. Mason was doing his best to try and unravel the secrets of the ‘neverending scarf’ trick that Luis was trying to pull off. He had an active little audience bent on his early retirement from magicianhood.
Of course, Mathilde and Harry were there and Aiden walked into the room right after Constance and Leila arrived, bringing a couple of tumblers full of an amber liquid on ice that Leila would guess was probably scotch. They were nothing if not consistent on their favorite liquor.
Mathilde offered Leila a drink but she declined any hard liquors as she had to drive later. Though she would probably partake in a glass of wine with dinner as she usually did.
Though the party was in his favor, Nate was nowhere to be seen and Leila figured he was either getting himself a drink or up in his room, not ready to face the raucous crowd that awaited him below in the sitting room.
Leila spoke with Carl and Violet for a while before excusing herself to use the restroom. On the way, she ran into the guest of honor.
“Nate.” She greeted him briefly with a nod. “Welcome back. Your welcoming committee seems to have started without you.”
“Hello, Leila,” he told her, voice clipped and dry. “Good to see you got your invite to this dinner. I suppose I have either my mother or Violet to thank for your presence this evening.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t my first choice for a Saturday night, but I’ll make do,” she told him.
“Well, I certainly hope my party’s not keeping you from screwing your flavor of the week,” Nate bit out at her, smiling near the end of the sentence.
“Just as I hope your party’s not keeping you from striking out talking to women at the bar.”
Smiling brightly, Leila shoved past him, regretting ever having agreed to attend Nate’s welcome home party.
“So are you staying until the wedding?” Constance asked as she cut up some of the veal on her plate before slipping the fork into her mouth.
“I’m staying... for good,” Nate told her, shocking the entire room.
“What about the businesses in England?” Aiden asked, looking between Harry and Nate. The former looked to be gritting his teeth and it was obvious he was not happy with his son’s announcement, though he had known about it already.
“I have fully staffed the businesses and all of the managers and execs on staff are more than capable of running them on their own,” Nate told him. “I will still be reachable by phone in the event they need my assistance, but otherwise I will stick to my side of the pond while Jenkins, Ackerly, and Farnes make most of the decisions.”
There were a lot of questions for him and Leila had to admit- he answered them all with grace. He didn’t seem annoyed or irritated as the questions were flung at him. It was all Leila could do not to tell everyone to quit the third degree. She didn’t feel like hearing a bunch of questions about businesses she had no interest in, in a country she most likely would never visit. It bored her to tears.
She turned to Constance who was speaking with Violet.
“When are you going to expand and given Mason a little sister or brother?” Constance was asking of Violet.
“Dear sweet Jesus,” Violet said, paling. “At least let me get one out of diapers before you give me ideas about another one.”
“Yeah, she’s only just been able to potty-train Carl,” Leila added with a smirk.
“I heard that!”
“You were meant to, Carl.”
“And what about your job, Leila? How’s that treating you?” Constance asked her. She knew Leila was an architect and had her own business, but not much else.
“Business is booming, thank goodness,” Leila told her and took a sip of merlot. “I have some more contracts I have to bid for in another month, but otherwise I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Yes, tell us more about the fascinating world of blueprints and floor plans,” Nate said snidely. “It’s absolutely fascinating.”
Leila pierced him with her eyes, ignoring his sarcasm.
“Well, it’s probably loads more interesting than mergers and Excel spreadsheets,” Leila quipped. “I could fall asleep at terms like ‘accounts receivable’ and ‘accruals’. Like my own little lullaby.”
Nate scowled at her and turned to his father who had asked him a question.
Snobby prick, Leila thought to herself.
Nathan hadn’t always been so rigid and formal. At some point before going to an Ivy league school, he had been fun to hang out with. Well... when he was around. Then- seemingly- overnight he had turned into someone Leila no longer knew and cared even less for. He turned into... Harry. Authoritarian, egotistical, shut off to the world. All stiff lines, ledgers and irritatingly knowledgeable figures.
And Leila wondered why. He didn’t seem to actually enjoy his work and seemed to only learn his father’s business for the sole purpose of taking it over when he came of age. Nate learned the biz for his father, not for himself. It was no wonder he had already burned out on the practice of it.
The Nate Leila had known prior to becoming business savvy was fun, playful. He enjoyed sports and music and had time to mess around and be free. One or two semesters at college was all it took for him to become a completely different person. One Leila no longer looked up to or yearned for the way she had the year prior.
Though she still hated his haughty attitude and that ever-growing chip on his shoulder, she found herself looking over at him and hoping the chip had at least worn down some. The man was going to have a heart attack at 30 if he kept up his prickly attitude and stiff demeanor.
There was no sign of the Nate he once was and Leila sighed. London did nothing but build up his icy comportment and further the distance between himself and his family and friends.
After dinner, they all went to the sitting room again where drinks were being served. Again, Leila declined any liquor and was starting to count down the minutes she would have to stay at the house before politely advising she needed to leave. She could fake a early Sunday morning meeting if she had to.
T-minus thirty minutes until it would be time for her to make her excuses and leave the ‘welcome home’ party. It was almost torture to be in the same room as someone she despised so blatantly.
It was mutual it seemed. They could barely be civil to each and almost sought the other out to irritate.
For instance, now. Nate had made the rounds of the room, thanking people for coming. He had left Leila for last,
“I wanted to thank you for coming to this party, though my mother had more to do with that than I did,” Nate said.
“Are you at all capable of being civil?” Leila asked. “I would have thought out of all things you could learn in England, it would be civility. The people there seem fretfully polite.”
“Not in London,” he told her. “There are many that can’t stand foreigners. What you see as being polite is merely a people tolerating the tourists and transplants to the city. Hell, they don’t even like those from the country. It’s all about where you come from.”
Leila wondered if that was true or if Nate was once again being contrary. He loved to fight her on any little issue it seemed.
“And how do they treat the northern Californian in Ye Ole London Towne?” she asked.
“Like I should have come straight off the plane on a surfboard and wearing swim trunks.”
“You mean you didn’t?” she asked, arching a brow.
She watched as he rolled his eyes and took a sip of his drink.
“Don’t be an idiot. Of course not,” he told her.
“How should I know?” she asked. “It’s not like we’re friends or even close. You could have come off the plane naked and it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“That sounds like something you would be more likely to do, honestly,” Nate told her. “At least that’s what a few of my friends have said. You seemed to have slept with at least once of them since I’ve been gone and they gave me the distinct impression that you’re... loose?”
Leila’s eyes widen.ed She didn’t remember fucking anyone Nate was friendly with. Not that she remembered all his friends.
“Parker? Don’t you remember him? Brown hair, small scar on his chin from a skateboarding accident?” Nate looked at her. “Honestly woman how many damned men have you fucked that you can’t remember him? He certainly remembers you.”
“I only remember the memorable ones, perhaps.” Leila’s eyes go from wide to slits on her face. She didn’t feel like discussing her love life- or lack thereof- with Nate. It was none of his damned business.
“Or you’ve fucked so many that the memories of a few of them had to fall out of your head to make more room for the newer conquests,” he said, voice like icicles.
“Fuck you, Nate,” Leila told him, glaring daggers at him. “You brought home plenty of skirt when you were in college so don’t you dare judge me.”
“I was serious about all those women,” he told her, frowning.
“Is that why you had a new interest each time you came home? Or were you so horrible in bed that they dumped you after you fucked them?”
“Says the Whore Of Babylon,” Nate bit out.
“I’m not a whore,” Leila spat. “I’m... relationship challenged.”
“Meaning that I don’t waste my time on one man if I know off the bat that he and I won’t work,” Leila drawled, irritated.
“Maybe if you gave them more than one night you’d find you were acting too hastily. Or possibly date them before fucking them. How novel an idea that is, eh?”
“Why does my sex life interest so much?” Leila asked. “Is yours so dull that you have to snoop around mine to live viacriously through me or do you simply enjoy demeaning women for sport? Perhaps that’s why all your ex-girlfriends left you. Or maybe because your dick’s minuscule compared to your inflated ego.”
“At least I’m not a gaping crevasse threatening to suck in the population of the South Bay with the gravitational pull your cavernous pussy maintains. I’m a bit concerned at my proximity to it, to be honest.”
“I’m done with this bullshit,” Leila told him, slamming her drink down on the nearest flat surface before heading toward the door of the sitting room.
Their conversation had been quiet enough for no one to overhear, though the tension between the two should have engulfed the entire room and rendered it silent with its intensity.
“Good, I won’t miss your face during the rest of this idiotic shindig,” Nate told her, not caring if she heard or not.
“What the fuck, Nate?” Violet hissed at him. She had noticed the tension between the two and had left Carl in charge of keeping an eye on Mason who was still fighting sleep to play with the older children.
“What? You know I can’t stand Leila,” he told her shrugging at her.
“What the hell did you say to her?” Violet questioned. She was caught between going after her friend and reaming out her older brother.
“Nothing she didn’t already know, Vi.”
Throughout the acidic banter, Leila had been fighting back emotion. She knew that she hated Nate and this had just confirmed it.
Judgmental, cocky Nate. Who probably knew nothing about her other than what Violet and his so-called friends must have said about her. She knew Vi would have been on her side, but Lord knew what his friends had told him. Not that she cared. Or at least that was what she told herself.
I’m not a fucking whore, Leila thought as she walked quickly to her car. She had grabbed the keys from the valet on her way out, though what the man (or woman) looked like she had no clue. By that time her vision was blurred, hot tears threatening to spill.
Just because she slept with a man and called it a day didn’t mean she was a whore. She had a healthy sexual appetite and if she felt the relationship was Splitsville waiting to happen, she cut it off at the pass. Why waste time when he’s ‘not the one’.
The problem with that argument was that there never was ‘the one’. They just... were. And that’s what had hit home.
Leila didn’t lead people on and doubted that half the men she slept with were after more than a one-off. Only a few had honestly protested when she had told them it was just not going to happen between them. And those men were... sweet.
So she usually kept away from those men as a rule. She hated to see the look on their faces when she told them it was fun but the chemistry just wasn’t there.
She could give a fuck less about what snobby Nathan Charles thought about her.
So why was her face wet and her chest hitching with sobs as she drove her car out of the circular driveway at ‘Chez Charles’?