He seduced me easily. He broke down my defenses as if they were paper. You wouldn’t have been able to resist either, believe me.
After so many years of feeling like a ghost in my own home, invisible, unloved, I think I would have fallen into his arms for one dark glance – one husky word. But Alejandro gave me so much more than that. He looked at me as if I were the most beautiful woman on earth. Listened to me as if every word on my lips was poetry. He pulled me into his arms, made me burst into flame, kissed my every grief and care away. After so many years of living in a cold gray world, my life exploded into color – because of him.
There was no reason that the Duque de Alzacar, the second richest man in Spain, would want someone like me – plain, poor – rather than my beautiful, wealthy cousin. I thought it was a miracle.
It was only later that I realized why Alejandro had chosen me. He hadn’t seduced me for the sake of love – or even lust. It was only later that I realized the selfish reason that had caused him to overwhelm me with his charm, to dazzle me, to make me love him.
But by then, it was too late.
The gray lowering sky was falling like a shroud across the old colonial city of San Miguel de Allende when I heard the words I’d feared in nightmares for the last year.
“A man was here looking for you, Señora Lena.”
Looking up at my neighbor, I staggered back, clutching my five-month-old son in my arms. “What?”
The woman smiled, reaching out to chuck the cooing baby’s pudgy chin. “Gracias for letting me watch Miguelito for an hour. Such a pleasure…”
“But the man?” I croaked, my mouth dry. “What did he look like?”
“Muy guapo,” she sighed. “So handsome. Dark-haired and tall.”
It could be anyone, I told myself desperately. The old silver mining town in central Mexico was filled with American expatriates who’d moved here to enjoy the lovely architecture and take classes at the famous Instituto. Many single women had come here to start new lives, pursuing new businesses as artists and sculptors and jewelry-makers.
Like me. A year ago, I’d arrived pregnant and full of grief, but I’d still managed to start a wonderful new life. Perhaps this dark stranger was looking for a portrait of his sweetheart, nothing more.
But I didn’t believe it. Fear was cold inside me. “Did he give his name?”
Dolores shook her head. “The baby was fussing in my arms when I answered the door. But the man was well-dressed, with a Rolls-Royce. A chauffeur. Bodyguards, even.” My neighbor’s smile spread to a grin. “Do you have a rich new boyfriend, Lena?”
My knees went weak.
“No,” I whispered.
It could only be one man. Alejandro Guillermo Valentín Navaro y Albra, the powerful Duke of Alzacar. The man I’d once loved with all my innocent heart. The man who’d seduced and betrayed me.
No. It was worse than that.
“He’s not your boyfriend, eh?” My neighbor’s voice was regretful. “Pity. Such a handsome man. Why did he come looking for you, then? Do you know him?”
Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. “When was he here?”
She shrugged, looking bemused. “A half-hour ago. Maybe more.”
“Did you say anything about – about Miguel being my son?”
Dolores shook her head. “He didn’t give me the chance. He just asked if you lived in the house two doors down. I said yes. He pulled out his wallet and asked me not to mention his visit, because he wanted to surprise you. Can you imagine?” She flourished some bills from her apron pocket in delight. “He paid me a thousand pesos for my silence!”
Yes. I could imagine. I briefly closed my eyes. “But you told me anyway,” I whispered. “Bless you.”
She snorted. “Men always want to arrive with a flourish of trumpets. I thought it better for you to be prepared.” She looked at my shapeless white sundress and plain sandals with a moue of disapproval, then at my long, casual ponytail and makeup-free face. She sighed. “You have a good figure, but in that dress you look like a marshmallow. You don’t make the most of yourself. It’s almost like you don’t want to be noticed!” She shook her head. “But tonight you must be at your most irresistible, your most sexy, sí? You want him to want you!”
No. I really didn’t. Not that he would want me anyway, now his evil plan had succeeded. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
“So picky!” She made a tsk sound. “You don’t want this billionaire, you don’t want that one – I tell you, wealthy, handsome men are not so thick upon the ground as you seem to think!” Dolores glared at me. “Your son needs a father. You need a husband. Both of you deserve every happiness.” Her expression turned suddenly sly. “And the man at my door looked like he would bring a lot of happiness to a wife. Every night.”
“No doubt,” I said over the razorblade in my throat. It was true. Alejandro had brought me intense joy for one summer. And a lifetime’s worth of anguish since. “I should go.”
“Sí. It’s almost Miguel’s naptime, isn’t it, pequeño?” she crooned.
My baby yawned, his fat cheeks vying with his sleepy dark eyes for cuteness. Those eyes just like his father’s.
I exhaled, running a hand over my forehead. I’d allowed myself to think we were safe. That Alejandro had given up looking for me. I should have known. I should have known better than to start sleeping at night, to start making friends, to start making a real home for myself and my son. I should have known they would someday find me…
“Lena?” My neighbor frowned. “But is something wrong? You do not seem happy.”
“Did you tell him when I’d be back?”
“I wasn’t sure when you’d be done, so to be safe I said four o’clock.”
I glanced at the clock in her brightly painted front room. It was only three. I had an hour. “Thank you.” In a burst of emotion, I hugged her, knowing that she’d been kind to me, to both of us, and that I would never see her again after today. “Gracias, Delores.”
She patted my back. “I know you’ve had a hard year, but that’s in the past. Your life is about to change for the better. I can always feel these things.”
Better? I choked back a laugh, then turned away before she could see my face. “Adios...”
“He’ll be your boyfriend, just wait and see,” she called after me gleefully. “He’ll be your husband someday!”
My husband. A bitter thought. I wasn’t the one Alejandro had wished to marry. He wanted my wealthy, beautiful cousin, Claudie. It was the whole reason he’d seduced me, the poor relation living in the shadows of her London mansion. If he and Claudie wed, together they’d have everything. A dukedom. Half of Andalucía. Political connections across the world. Billions in the bank. They’d have almost limitless power.
There was just one thing they could never have.
My eyes fell on my baby’s dark, downy head. I clutched Miguel tightly against me, and he gave an indignant cry. I loosened my grip, smoothing back his soft hair.
“Sorry, I’m so sorry,” I choked out, and I didn’t know whether I was begging my son’s forgiveness for holding him too tightly, for tearing him away from his home, or for choosing his father so poorly.
How could I have been so stupid? How?
Hurrying down the small street, I glanced up at the heavy gray sky. August was rainy season, and a downpour was threatening. Cuddling my baby against my hip, I punched in the security alarm code and pushed open the heavy oak door of my brightly painted home.
The rooms inside were dark. I’d fallen in love with this old colonial house, with its tall ceilings, its privacy, its scarcity of windows on the street. I never could have paid the rent in a million years, but I’d been helped by a friend, who’d allowed me to live here rent-free. Well – I thought of Edward St. Cyr as a friend. Until a week ago, when he’d –
But no. I wouldn’t think of that now, or how betrayed I’d felt last week when the friendship I’d come to rely upon had been revealed for what it was.
I’m tired of waiting for you to forget that Spanish bastard. It’s time for you to belong to me.
I shuddered at the memory. My answer had sent Edward scowling from this house, back on his private jet to London. There was no way I could remain living in this house, rent-free, after that, so for the last week, I’d looked for a cheaper place to live. But without a proper job, no place was cheap enough. I blinked back tears.
San Miguel de Allende had become my home. I’d miss the city’s cobblestoned streets, growing flowers in my garden and selling portraits in the open-air mercados. I’d miss the friends I’d made, Mexicans and expats who’d welcomed an unmarried, heartbroken woman and her baby, who’d taped me up and put me back together.
I took a deep breath in my open doorway, trying to steady my shaking nerves. “I can do this,” I whispered aloud, trying to make myself believe it. I knew how to grab passports, money and clothes and be out of here in five minutes. I’d done it before, in Tokyo, Berlin, Istanbul, São Paulo and Mumbai.
But then, I’d had Edward to help me. Now I had was no one.
Don’t think about it, I ordered myself, wiping my eyes. I’d go on foot and hail a taxi on the street. Once at the station, my baby and I would take the next bus to Mexico City. I’d use the emergency credit card Edward had left to fly to the United States, where I was born. I’d head west. Disappear. Once I found a job, I’d pay back Edward every penny.
I’d raise my child in peace, in some small town in Arizona or Alaska, and this time, I’d make sure Alejandro would never, ever find me….
A lamp flicked on in the foyer.
Alejandro was sitting in a chair across the room, staring at me with eyes that burned like fire.
I halted, choking out a gasp.
“Lena Carlisle,” Alejandro said in a low voice. “At last.”
“Alejandro,” I breathed as terror racked through me. My hands instinctively tightened on my baby in my arms. “What are you – how did you…”
“How did I find you?” He rose to his feet, tall and broad-shouldered. “Or how did I get in to your house?” His voice was low, husky, with only the slightest accent, blurred from growing up in Spain, followed by years running a billion-dollar business conglomerate from New York and London. “Do you really think any security system, no matter how expensive,could keep me from being where I wanted to be?”
He was even more handsome than I remembered. Seeing him in the flesh, after a year of being tormented by sensual dreams, my knees trembled. I clutched Miguel closer, willing myself not to faint.
Alejandro’s cold eyes never left mine as he walked towards me. He was dressed in black from his well-cut coat to his glossy Italian shoes, draped in power.
“What do you want?” I choked out.
He looked from me to my yawning, drowsy-eyed baby.
“Is it true?” His voice was deadly quiet, but the words burned through my heart. His face was grim. “Did you have my baby?”
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Text Copyright © 2013 by Jennie Lucas • Cover Art Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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