A Spanish Affair: Naive Bride, Defiant Wife / Flora's Defiance - Линн Грэхем - CHAPTER FIVE Читать онлайн любовный роман

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A Spanish Affair: Naive Bride, Defiant Wife / Flora's Defiance

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FROM HER STANCE on the edge of the small adventure playground, Jemima watched Alejandro park his sumptuous vehicle. Halston Manor estate lay a few miles outside the village and its grounds were open to the public the year round and much used by locals. Jemima had arranged their meeting with care, choosing an outdoor location where Alfie could let off steam and where all interaction between his parents would have to be circumspect.

Alejandro was dressed with unusual informality in a heavy dark jacket, sweater and jeans. Black hair ruffled by the breeze and blowing back from his classic bronzed features, he looked totally amazing and every woman in the vicinity awarded his tall, well-built figure a lingering look. Jemima tried very hard not to stare and, shivering a little in the cool spring air, she dug her hands into the pockets of her red coat and focused on Alfie, who was climbing the steps to the slide, his big dark eyes sparkling with enjoyment.

‘The family resemblance is obvious,’ Alejandro remarked with husky satisfaction. ‘He is very much a Vasquez, though he has your curls and there is a look of you about his eyes and mouth.’

‘I’ve told him about you,’ Jemima informed him.

‘How did he take it?’

‘He’s quite excited about the idea of having a father,’ she confided. ‘But he doesn’t really understand what a father is or what one does.’

In receipt of that news, Alejandro gave both Jemima and Alfie an immediate demonstration, striding forward to intervene when a bigger boy pushed his way past Alfie on the slide steps and the toddler nearly fell. Jemima watched as Alejandro grabbed her son and steadied him. Alfie laughed and smiled up at Alejandro, who spoke to him before stepping back to applaud Alfie’s energetic descent of the slide.

Her attention glued to man and child, Jemima hovered. Father and son did look almost ludicrously alike from their black hair and olive-tinted skin to their dark eyes and the brilliance of their smiles. Alfie shouted at her to join them at the swings and she went over, her small face taut, her eyes wary. She could barely speak to Alejandro, yet they’d had a child together: it was an unsettling thought. She pushed Alfie on the swing and watched him show off for his father’s benefit. Then her son jumped off the swing before it came to a halt and fell, bursting into tears of over-excitement.

Alejandro scooped him up and took him straight over to another piece of equipment to distract him and Alfie quickly stopped crying. Jemima hadn’t expected Alejandro to be as assured at handling a young child as he so obviously was. She watched him crouch down to wipe Alfie’s tear-wet face, and tensed as Alfie suddenly flung his arms round Alejandro and hugged him with the easy affection that was so much a part of him. She saw Alejandro’s expression as well: the sudden blossoming warmth in his dark eyes, the tightening of his fabulous bone structure that suggested that he was struggling to hold back his emotions and the manner in which he vaulted upright to unashamedly hug Alfie back.

Set down again and in high spirits, Alfie scampered over to his mother and grabbed her hand. ‘Ducks…ducks,’ he urged and, turning his head, he called, ‘Papa…Papa!’ in Spanish as if he had been calling Alejandro that all his life.

‘Now we go and feed the ducks,’ Jemima explained to Alejandro.

Alfie tearing ahead of them, they walked along the wide path by the lake.

‘He’s a wonderful little boy,’ Alejandro commented abruptly, his dark, deep accented drawl low pitched and husky. ‘You’ve done well with him.’

Jemima shot him a surprised glance and met gleaming dark golden eyes with an inner quiver. ‘Thanks.’

‘Only a happy, confident child could accept a stranger so easily.’

Warmed by that approval, Jemima felt less defensive and she leant back against a tree and relaxed while Alfie fed the ducks and talked to Alejandro about them. A lot of what the little boy said was nonsense-talk because he only had a small vocabulary, but Alejandro played along. Alfie stretched out a trusting hand to hold his father’s and Alejandro began to tell his son about the lake at the Castillo del Halcón and the ducks that lived there.

‘The recruitment agency got in touch yesterday and have promised to send me a couple of CVs by midweek,’ she told him.

Estupendo! Marvellous,’ Alejandro pronounced, studying her from below the dense black fringe of his lashes, eyes a glinting gold provocation that sent colour winging into her cheeks.

He looked at her and she could barely catch her breath. Her nipples were taut, distended buds beneath her clothing and her thighs pressed together as though to contain the rise of the hot, sensitised heat there. She swallowed hard, struggling to shut out the fierce sexual awareness that was racing through her veins like an adrenalin rush.

‘Tell me,’ Alejandro murmured in a lazy undertone as he towered over her, one lean brown hand braced against the tree, and there was absolutely no forewarning of what he was about to say. ‘What did you get from Marco that you couldn’t get from me?’

Jemima recoiled from him as though he had stuck a knife in her and moved away several steps, her face flushing, her eyes evasive and full of discomfiture.

‘Naturally I want to know,’ Alejandro added curtly. So beautiful and so treacherous, he reflected darkly. It was a fact he could not afford to forget.

Jemima threw her head up, her eyes purple with strong emotion. ‘He talked to me, he took me places, he introduced me to his friends…He wanted my opinions and my company, which is more than you ever did!’

In receipt of that recitation of his brother’s deceptive talents, Alejandro dealt her a forbidding appraisal. ‘Primarily, Marco used you to get at me. He’s a player and you found that out for yourself, didn’t you? Did you or did you not tell me that you hadn’t heard from my brother since you left Spain?’

At that retaliatory crack, furious mortification gripped Jemima for, of course, he was correct in that assumption. Put under pressure, Marco’s friendship had lacked strength, permanence and true affection.

Refusing to respond in kind, however, she set her teeth together and for what remained of Alejandro’s visit she spoke mainly to Alfie and only when forced to his father.

* * *

A MONTH LATER, a four-wheel-drive driven by an estate worker collected Jemima and Alfie from their flight to Spain. Jemima had hoped that Alejandro might pick them up personally but she was not surprised when he failed to appear. As she had learned when they were first married, Alejandro was always very much in demand and, as his wife, she was usually at the foot of his priorities list.

It was a recollection that could only annoy Jemima on the day that she had had to leave behind both the home and the business that she cherished. An excellent manager had taken over the shop. Jemima had put most of her possessions in storage so that the older woman could also rent her house. But all the work she had put into training as a florist, growing her client base for the shop and decorating her home now seemed pointless. On the other hand, she had only agreed to a three-month sojourn in Spain, Jemima reminded herself bracingly. Surrendering to Alejandro’s blackmail had cost her dear but retaining custody of the little boy securely strapped in the car seat beside her was much, much more important to her.

The Castle of the Hawk sat on rocky heights above a lush wooded valley in the remote Las Alpujarras mountains, the last outpost of the Moors in Spain. Little villages with white flat-roofed houses and steep roads adorned the mountainsides while olive, orange and almond groves, grapevines and crops grown for biofuels flourished in the fertile soil. The Vasquez family had ruled their hidden valley like feudal lords for centuries and anyone seeing Alejandro, the current Conde Olivares, being greeted by deferential locals soon appreciated just how much weight that heritage still carried.

Agriculture alone, however, had proved insufficient to keep Alejandro’s family in the style to which they had long been accustomed. His father had opened an art gallery in Madrid, but it had taken Alejandro—an astute businessman with the guts to take risks and an infinitely more ruthless edge—to turn that initial purchase into a hugely profitable and influential chain of international galleries. A hotel group and several financial enterprises had also been acquired by Alejandro and between the demands of his business empire and the running of the family estate Alejandro had very little time to spare.

He had always tried to maintain a low profile with the media at home and abroad. However, not only was he very photogenic and the bearer of an ancient title, but he had also, prior to his marriage, enjoyed a love life that was very newsworthy. Those facts, allied with his growing visibility in the business world, had ensured that he could no longer pass undetected and both their wedding and their break-up had, to Alejandro’s intense annoyance, attracted newspaper coverage. For that reason, Jemima felt she should have been better prepared when she’d found cameras waiting at the airport earlier that day to record their departure for Spain, but she had been out of the limelight for so long that the appearance of the paparazzi had taken her completely by surprise.

Jemima would also have liked to have known how on earth word of her apparent reconciliation with her Spanish Count and the fact that they now had a child had reached the public domain. She did have very good reason to dread renewed media exposure. Indeed, just thinking about how those photos might cause trouble for her again made Jemima feel sick with apprehension. She was praying that the bad luck that had overtaken her some years earlier and trapped her between a rock and a hard place would not reappear to cause her and those connected with her even more damage and distress.

Endeavouring to bury her worries and control her nerves, Jemima drank in the beauty of the picturesque landscape while the heavy vehicle climbed a familiar road girded by a forest of oaks and chestnuts. The car finally pulled into a courtyard ringed by ornamental trees in giant pots that bore the family coat of arms. Alfie stared out with rounded eyes at the towering thirteenth century stone fortress that now surrounded them on three sides. Her youthful figure slender in casual jeans and a tangerine T-shirt, Jemima left Alfie in the car and rattled the knocker on the giant studded front door.

The door was opened by the middle-aged housekeeper, Maria, but she stepped back to give precedence to a stout older woman with greying hair who carried herself with a ramrod straight spine, her hard black eyes glinting with outrage.

‘How dare you come back to my home?’ Doña Hortencia erupted, barring the doorway.

Her daughter, Beatriz, hurried into view and twisted her hands together in an ineffectual protest. ‘Jemima, how lovely to see you again…Mamá, please, please…we must respect Alejandro’s wishes.’

Her sister-in-law’s anxious, embarrassed face was painful to behold. That her loyalties were tearing her in two was obvious.

The driver carted over two suitcases while Beatriz stared out at the child she could see peering through the window of the estate vehicle. ‘Oh, is that Alfie, Jemima? May I go and see him?’

For once impervious to her mother’s mood, Beatriz hurried out to the car. The driver hefted up the luggage and stepped past Doña Hortencia with a subservient dip of his head.

‘Good afternoon, Doña Hortencia,’ Jemima said stoically, following the driver indoors with her flight bag on her shoulder. She was determined not to react in any way to the dirty looks she was receiving and believed that she was a good deal less likely to be bullied than she had been two years earlier. The older woman would certainly make the attempt but Jemima had learned to care less about the impression she made.

Aglow with satisfaction, Beatriz returned holding Alfie’s little hand in hers. ‘Mamá, look at him,’ she urged with enthusiasm.

Doña Hortencia gazed down at her first grandchild and her forbidding stare softened for an instant before she shot a grim glance at her daughter-in-law. ‘This little boy, Alejandro’s son and heir, is the one and only thing you have got right.’

Swallowing back the urge to retaliate in kind, Jemima said nothing. What was there to say? Alejandro’s mother would never like her or accept her as an equal. Her son had married an ordinary working woman and a foreigner, rather than the wealthy Spanish aristocrat whom the older woman had thought his due, and Doña Hortencia was too stubborn, arrogant and prejudiced to revise her attitude. When Jemima had first come to the castillo, the Spanish woman had done everything possible to ensure that her daughter-in-law’s daily life was as miserable as she could make it. This time around, however, Jemima had no plans to accept victimhood.

Beatriz accompanied Jemima up the carved staircase and made small talk as if her life depended on it.

Dark gloomy oil portraits of Alejandro’s ancestors lined the hall and landing walls. Serious though Alejandro so often was, Jemima reflected helplessly, he was a positive barrel of laughs when she compared him to his predecessors.

‘Alejandro has engaged a nanny to help you with Alfie,’ Beatriz announced.

‘How very thoughtful of your brother,’ Jemima remarked after a noticeable pause.

‘Placida is the daughter of one of our tenants and a very able girl,’ her companion extended anxiously.

Jemima did not want to make Beatriz feel uncomfortable. ‘I’m sure she’s perfect for the job.’

‘This is the room I chose for Alfie,’ Beatriz announced with pride, throwing wide the door on a fully furnished nursery complete with a cot, a junior bed and piles of toys. ‘Of course, you may prefer to choose another.’

‘This is lovely. Did you organise all the toys?’

Beatriz laughed. ‘No, that was my brother. Can you believe that Alejandro went shopping for his son?’

‘I wouldn’t have believed it if you hadn’t told me,’ Jemima admitted, as Alejandro’s dislike of shopping was well known. Bitter as she was about finding herself back in Spain, she could only be touched by the effort he had made on Alfie’s behalf. Equally quickly, however, her thoughts travelled in the opposite direction. Of course, wouldn’t Alejandro’s actual presence mean more than the purchase of expensive toys? In fact wasn’t Alfie receiving his first dose of the same benign neglect that Jemima had once endured as Alejandro’s wife?

Undisturbed by such deep and troubled mental ruminations, Alfie pelted across the room to grab a toy car with an eager hand. His aunt watched him, entranced. ‘You must be so proud,’ Beatriz remarked.

Not for the first time, Jemima felt sorry for Beatriz, who was only thirty-five years old but very much on the shelf of her mother’s making, for no young man capable of winning Doña Hortencia’s approval had ever come along. A dutiful daughter to the last, Alejandro’s older sister lived the sedate life of a much older woman.

Placida, the small dark-haired nanny, came to be introduced. After chatting for a while, Jemima left Alfie with Placida and Beatriz and crossed the corridor. The elaborate suite of tower rooms in which she had lived with Alejandro before her pregnancy had brought all sharing to an end was unrecognisable to Jemima at first glance. All the furniture had been changed and a pale yellow colour scheme had banished the dark ornate wallpaper that she had once hated, but that Doña Hortencia had informed her was hand-painted, exceedingly rare and there for eternity. A maid was already busily unpacking her cases and putting her clothes away in the dressing room.

A weird and worrying sense of déjà vu was now settling over Jemima. Alejandro’s non-appearance at the airport had first ignited the suspicion that she was about to discover that nothing had changed in the marriage she had left behind. He had also just demonstrated his engrained habit of taking authoritarian charge of anything and everything that came within his radius. In hiring Placida over her head, Alejandro had shown that only his opinion mattered and Jemima did not appreciate being made to feel superfluous in her child’s life.

Once the maid had gone, Jemima went for a shower and padded through to the dressing room to extract fresh clothes. It was a shock to open the closets and find that they were already stuffed full of brand-new garments and the drawers packed with equally new lingerie, all of it in her size. Her own small collection of clothes looked shabby in comparison. Evidently, Alejandro, the guy who hated to shop even for himself, had ordered her a new wardrobe. Such generosity was very much his trademark but it made Jemima feel uncomfortable. Perhaps he didn’t trust her to dress smartly enough. Perhaps her lack of formal fashion sense had once embarrassed him. Maybe that was why he had gone shopping for her…

Yet the prospect of dining with her haughty mother-in-law garbed like a poor relation in more humble clothing had surprisingly little appeal and Jemima succumbed to the temptation of the new clothes. She selected an elegant sapphire blue dress and slid her feet into delicate sandals before hurriedly going to check on Alfie. He was playing happily in the bath while Placida watched over him. Using her slightly rusty Spanish, Jemima established that Alfie had already eaten his evening meal and she returned to the bedroom.

While she was combing her rebellious hair into a less tumbled style the door opened and she froze. Alejandro, already in the act of removing his tie, appeared. His immaculate grooming was, for once, absent. Indeed, in the bright light of the sunset flooding into the room through the windows, his tailored suit looked crumpled and almost dusty, his black hair tousled, while a dark shadow of stubble heavily accentuated his angular jaw line. But, even with all those flaws taken into consideration, he still looked spectacular, awesomely masculine and awesomely sexy. As she studied him, her body reacting with treacherous enthusiasm even as her pride rejected those earthy responses, hot, heady anger threatened to consume her.

‘I told Maria we would dine alone next door tonight. Give me ten minutes for a shower,’ Alejandro urged her carelessly, but the scorching golden eyes that raked over the mane of strawberry-blonde curls framing her heart-shaped face, before roaming down to the pouting curves defined by the fine fabric of her dress, were in no way casual. That appraisal was so hot she was vaguely surprised that her body didn’t start smoking and if anything that bold, sensually appreciative appraisal only increased her resentment.

‘Where do you get the nerve to look at me like that?’ Jemima launched at him in furious condemnation of that familiarity and the evident plan for a romantic meal for two. It would take a great deal more than that one tiny effort to turn her into the compliant wife he so obviously wanted and expected.

His well-shaped ebony brows drew together as he shed his jacket and embarked on the buttons of his shirt. ‘You’re too eye-catching to ignore,’ he told her teasingly

Jemima was fighting to hang onto her temper. She didn’t need a crystal ball to tell her that it was never cool to rail at a man for keeping his distance and even less cool to complain of a lack of attention. So she spun away and glowered at her own frustrated reflection in a tall cheval mirror. Why should she give him the satisfaction of knowing that she had been disappointed when he failed to show up at the airport? Or when he didn’t even take the trouble to phone to make a polite excuse for his absence from home? Yet that lack of consideration for her feelings was so familiar from the past that she couldn’t help wanting to scream and shout in complaint.

‘I’m such an idiot!’ she suddenly exclaimed, unable to hold back her seething emotions and keep her tongue glued to the roof of her mouth any longer. ‘Somehow I thought it would be different…that you’d make more of an effort to make this work this time—’

‘What are you talking about?’ Alejandro demanded in the act of shedding the shirt to reveal a superb bronzed muscular chest sprinkled with dark curling hair and a hard, flat stomach that easily met the attributes of the proverbial six-pack.

Jemima spun back to face him. A pulse was beating so fast at the foot of her throat that it was a challenge to find her voice. With every fibre in her body she was blocking out and refusing to respond to his mesmeric physical appeal. ‘I arrived here a couple of hours ago. What did you think it would be like for me to be confronted with your mother before I even saw you again? Obviously it didn’t occur to you that for once in your life you should have been here for me!’

‘I left a message with my mother for you. Are you saying that you didn’t receive it?’ Alejandro prompted in a tone of hauteur that only set her teeth on edge more.

‘Your mother hates me like poison. Are you still so naïve that you think she would take the trouble to pass on a message to me?’ Jemima fired back at him.

‘If you didn’t get the message, I can only apologise for the oversight,’ Alejandro drawled smooth as glass, casting off the remainder of his clothes with incredible cool and strolling into the bathroom as lithe and strikingly naked as a sleek bronzed god.

That non-committal and reserved response made Jemima so mad, she was vaguely surprised that the top of her head didn’t blow off. ‘Don’t pull that aristocratic indifference act on me to try and embarrass me into silence!’ she hissed, stalking after him into the bathroom.

‘Since when has it been possible to embarrass you into silence?’ And with that cutting comeback Alejandro switched on the shower and forced her to swallow back her ire as she assumed that he could no longer hear her above the noise of the water beating down on the tiles.

But Jemima was so irate she still couldn’t shut up. The suave assurance with which Alejandro had stripped off in front of her and calmly entered the shower had acted like an electric shock on an already raw temper. ‘I hate you when you treat me like this!’ she yelled.

While Alejandro showered, Jemima paced in the doorway, all recollection of her past unhappiness as his wife returning then and there to haunt her. Not for anyone would she go through that experience again! And yet hadn’t she just signed up again for a rerun on Alfie’s behalf? How could it benefit Alfie that she wanted to kill his father in cold blood?

The water switched off and the fleecy white towel on the tiled wall was snatched off the rail. Jemima was trembling and she wrapped her arms round herself. Alejandro reappeared with the towel knotted round his narrow hips, his damp black hair slicked back from his brow and his big powerful body still beaded with drops of moisture. He surveyed her with infuriating, deeply offensive assurance.

‘You don’t hate me. Of course you don’t,’ he told her drily.

‘And how do you make that out? By the time that I walked out on our marriage, I couldn’t stand you!’

Alejandro moved towards her and she backed into the bedroom. ‘But why?’ he queried in the most reasonable of voices. ‘Because I had realised what you were up to with Marco? Because I asked you to explain what happened to all that money? Any man would have demanded answers from you.’

‘First and foremost I left you because you wouldn’t believe a word I said, but I did have lots of other good reasons,’ Jemima flung, her eyes bright as violet stars below her fine brows as she challenged him.

Alejandro frowned darkly. ‘I’m hungry. I want to get dressed and eat. I don’t want to get into a big scene right now.’

Such a surge of rage shot through Jemima’s tiny frame that she genuinely felt as though she had grown physically taller. ‘Alejandro…there’s never a right time with you. But I suggest that for once you look at what you did to contribute to the breakdown of our marriage and stop blaming me for everything that went wrong—’

‘Leave the past behind us.’

‘Don’t you dare say that to me when you continually throw everything I did back at me!’ Jemima hissed.

Alejandro groaned out loud. ‘So, say what you have to say in as few words as you can manage.’

‘You forced me to live under the same roof as your mother—’

‘The castle is very large. Such living arrangements are common in Spain—’

‘It was never that simple. Doña Hortencia loathes me and she made my life a misery the last time I was here. What did you ever do to stop her?’ she condemned fiercely.

‘You always exaggerate. How was your life made a misery?’ Alejandro countered in a discouraging tone of disbelief.

‘If I asked any of the staff to do anything they had to run it by your mother first because she insisted that she was still the mistress of this household. Usually, whatever I wanted I didn’t get and I found that humiliating. She criticised everything I did, refused to speak to me at mealtimes when you weren’t there and insulted me to my face in front of visitors. Ask your sister. Beatriz avoids trouble like the plague but she won’t tell you any lies if you ask the right questions.’

Alejandro had screened his brilliant gaze and his wide sensual mouth was compressed by the time she had finished speaking. ‘I’ll check it out.’

Jemima knotted her hands into fists. ‘So, you can’t take my word on that either?’

‘Since it looks as though I am destined to go hungry tonight, what else do I stand accused of?’ Alejandro enquired with sardonic bite.

His derisive intonation made Jemima’s teeth grind together. She was shivering with temper and her gaze locked accusingly to his. ‘It’s your fault that I fell pregnant with Alfie!’

Alejandro studied her in obvious bewilderment. ‘You love our son. You can scarcely hold his conception against me.’

‘I did when I first discovered that I was pregnant. You chose to be careless with contraception but I paid the price for it,’ she challenged, flushing as she recalled the passionate bout of lovemaking in the shower that had led to her unplanned pregnancy. ‘We had only been married a few months and I was still quite young for motherhood. I didn’t feel ready for a baby and being so sick while I was carrying him didn’t help. It made me feel more trapped than ever here but you didn’t understand how I felt, did you?’

‘No, I didn’t, but then you didn’t tell me at the time,’ Alejandro countered levelly. ‘Naturally I realised that you were unhappy but I assumed that was because you were unwell. I would’ve thought that by now you would have put any bitterness behind you on that score.’

Jemima regarded him with seething resentment. ‘So you get a clean slate while I get reminded of my every mistake?’

‘Alfie is not a mistake, Jemima. He is most probably the best thing that ever happened to either of us,’ Alejandro proclaimed in an undertone of driven emotion that was rare for him, his stunning golden eyes unusually eloquent.

Her eyes suddenly stung with prickling tears. ‘I didn’t mean that he was a mistake…’

‘Then what did you mean?’

‘You see, there you go again…thinking the very worst of me!’ Jemima launched accusingly, the swimming moisture in her eyes overflowing.


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