But all the time, in the background of her life, her father had continued to gamble. Relying on her income as a safety net, he had, without her knowledge, begun playing for higher and higher stakes. To be fair, Leland’s casino manager had cut off Russ Kendall’s credit line the minute he’d suspected the older man was in over his head. Maxie had met Leland Coulter for the first time the day she settled her father’s outstanding tab at his casino.

‘You won’t change the man, Maxie,’ he had told her then. ‘If he was starving, he would risk his last fiver on a bet. He has to be the one who wants to change.’

After that humiliating episode her father had made her so many promises. He had sworn blind that he would never gamble again but inevitably he had broken his word. And, barred from the reputable casinos, he had gone dangerously down-market to play high-rolling poker games in smoky back rooms with the kind of tough men who would happily break his fingers if he didn’t pay his dues on time. That was when Maxie’s life had come completely unstuck...

Having got himself into serious debt, and learning to his dismay that his daughter had no savings left after his previous demands, Russ had been very badly beaten up. He had lost a kidney. In his hospital bed, he had sobbed with shame and terror in her arms. He had been warned that if he didn’t come up with the money he owed, he would be crippled the next time.

Distraught, Maxie had gone to Leland Coulter for advice. And Leland had offered her an arrangement. He would pay off her father’s gambling debts and allow her to repay him at her leisure on condition that she moved in with him. He had been very honest about what he wanted. Not sex, he had insisted. No, what Leland had craved most had been the ego-boosting pleasure of being seen to possess a beautiful young woman, who would preside over his dinner table, act as his hostess, entertain his friends and always be available to accompany him wherever he went.

It hadn’t seemed so much to ask. Nobody else had been prepared to loan her that amount of money. And she had been so agonisingly grateful that her father was safe from further harm. She hadn’t seen the trap she was walking into. She hadn’t even been aware that Leland was a married man until the headlines had hit the tabloids and taken her reputation away overnight. She had borne the blame for the breakup of his marriage.

‘Jennifer and I split up because she had an affair,’ Leland had admitted grudgingly when Maxie had roundly objected to the anomalous situation he had put her in. ‘But this way, with you by my side, I don’t feel like a fool...all right?’

And she had felt sorry for him then, right through the protracted and very public battle he and his wife had had over alimony and property. Jennifer and Leland had fought each other every inch of their slow path to the divorce court, yet a week before the hearing, when Leland had had a heart attack, the only woman he had been able to think about when he was convinced that he was at his last gasp had, most tellingly, been his estranged wife. ‘Go away, leave me alone... I need Jennifer here... I don’t want her seeing you with me now!’ he had cried in pathetic masculine panic.

And that had hurt. In a crazy way she had grown rather fond of Leland, even of his silly showing-off and quirky little vanities. Not a bad man, just a selfish one, like all the men she had ever known, and she hoped he was happy now that he was back with his Jennifer. But he had used her not only to soothe his wounded vanity but also, and less forgivably, she recognised now, as a weapon with which to punish his unfaithful wife. And Maxie could not forget that, or forgive herself for the blind naivety that had allowed it to happen in the first place. Never, ever again, she swore, would she be used...

Early the next morning, Maxie helped Liz pack. Her friend was heading off to stay with friends in Devon. The fact that her house wouldn’t be left empty during her absence was a source of great relief to Liz. The previous year her home had been burgled and her studio vandalised while she was away.

As soon as she had seen the older woman off, Maxie spent an hour slapping on make-up like war-paint and dressing up in style. Angelos Petronides needed a lesson and Maxie was determined to give it to him.

Mid-morning, she pawned the one piece of valuable jewellery she owned. She had been eleven when she’d found the Victorian bracelet buried in a box of cheap costume beads which had belonged to her mother. She had cried, guessing why the bracelet had been so well concealed. Even in the three short years of her marriage, her poor mother had doubtless learnt the hard way that when her husband was short of money he would sell anything he could get his hands on. Afterwards, Russ would be terribly sorry and ashamed, but by then it would be too late and the treasured possession would be gone. So Maxie had kept the bracelet hidden too.


Tags: Lynne Graham The Husband Hunters Billionaire Romance
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