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Don Rafael Ortega Romero looked at the girl standing across the room from him. He knew she would be no different from her social peers in their privileged circles in Buenos Aires: rich and spoilt. She was paler than her contemporaries, but he guessed that came from her English father. Her mother, Maria Fuentes de la Roja, was Argentinian aristocracy through and through. His brain felt slightly fuzzy around the edges and he cursed himself mentally; one shot too many of whisky wasn't going to help him out of this predicament, or the feeling of entrapment he'd lived with for years.
It was Isobel Miller's eighteenth birthday tonight, and he'd finally come to meet her face to face. Because this was the woman He amended that now with a twist in his gut. This was the girl he'd been promised to in marriage since he was eighteen years old.
'You can't make me marry you!'
Isobel's chest rose up and down with her agitated breath. She'd never felt so threatened and intimidated in her life. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides, and she felt frumpy and awkward in the too tight and fussy satin dress her mother had made her wear for her birthday celebrations that night.
The man across the room just looked at her coolly and said, in a deep voice that sent a disturbing frisson of awareness through her, 'I'd like to say that your reluctance is refreshing, but I doubt you really mean thatespecially when you know you have no choice in the matter. When your grandfather sold your family's estancia to my father, he rewrote your destiny.' His mouth thinned into a bitter line. 'They both got what they wantedyour grandfather got money from the sale with the assurance that the estancia would return to the family through you by walking away with a watertight marriage agreement.'
Isobel struggled to comprehend. 'You mean you mean that your father was played? But that's'
'Hardly.' He cut her off, his voice grim. 'My father didn't get played by anyone. He had a bone to pick with your grandfather and he was the only one willing to make an offer on a property too huge for many others to contemplate buying. But he made sure he got what he wanted in returna dynastic marriage between his sonmeand someone from a suitably impressive lineageyou. Your family fortunes leave much to be desired at this time, but that is neither here nor there. Your family are still considered pillars of Buenos Aires society. Ten years ago, when the deal was done, your grandfather only received half of the estancia's worth. My father, using his profession as a lawyer to best advantage, made sure that your family would only receive the other half on the day of our weddingon your twenty-first birthday.'
Isobel reeled. She'd known about this since she'd turned sixteen, known that this day might come. But she'd pushed the prospect away, deep down where she wouldn't have to think about it, hoping that if she didn't acknowledge it, it wouldn't manifest itself. The thought of an arranged marriage to one of Buenos Aires's scions of industry had been too barbaric to contemplate, and going to secondary school in England and living most of the time with her father's family there had helped cushion her from the truth.
But the reality was manifesting itself in front of her right now, mocking her paltry hopes that it might never happen. Panic clawed upwards through Isobel's throat, constricting it slightly. 'It's not my fault that my grandfather felt compelled to sell the estancia and broker such a deal.'
It was hard for her to cling onto any sense of reality right now. It had been hard enough to contemplate coming back to Buenos Aires after leaving school in England with the prospect of telling her parents she wanted to go to Europe to pursue her love for dancing. She'd always found the more conservative society of Buenos Aires constrictiveespecially after spending time with her more relaxed and down-to-earth English relations, who would frequently debate around the dinner table. They hadn't known about her arranged marriage, and she'd never mentioned it to them, mortified at how medieval it would sound.
Her years of relative freedom in England had given Isobel an objective view of her privileged upbringing, and she knew with a passion that she could never slot into the life of a pampered millionaire's wifewhich was what so many of her Buenos Aires girlfriends were doing, despite their own schooling in exclusive schools all around the world.
Don Rafael Ortega Romero gave a short sharp laugh now, making Isobel flinch minutely, and she felt her heart kick when she saw a flash of white teeth. Are you really that naive, little Isobel Miller? Our whole privileged society is based on unions of strategy and convenience. Marriages have been arranged for many, many generations. I'll give you that this particular one seems to be a little more arbitrary than most, but really it's no different.'
He smiled, and it was devastatingly cynical. 'If we all believed in true-love matches, the upper echelons would collapse into anarchy in the morningand believe me, I've first-hand knowledge of that.'
In a slightly crumpled tuxedo, white shirt open and bow tie hanging rakishly undone, with a potent aura of raw sexuality surrounding him, the most elusive and sought-after bachelor in Buenos Aires was effortlessly living up to his arrogant and ruthless name. His hands were thrust deep into the pockets of his expertly tailored black trousers. Rafael Romero was a truly magnificent specimen of virile masculinity.
The threat of no escape and a forced marriage made Isobel's chest constrict with fear, but she felt a flash of fire in her belly and said through gritted teeth, 'I'm not little or naive, and it is positively medieval in this day and age to expect people to agree to an arranged marriage like this.'
Isobel had followed her parents into the hall earlier when he'd arrived. The front door had remained open momentarily, along with the back door of his chauffeur-driven car. Isobel had caught a glimpse of a long, sleek leg, a seductively high-heeled shoe, before his driver had shut the door on the view.
Looking at photos of this man in the press had done little to prepare Isobel for his effect on her face to face. His skin was a deep dark olive, his hair as black as midnight, and his eyes were like two pools of dark sin. His face was hard and uncompromising, with an almost cruel aspect that was softened only by the most decadently sensual mouth she'd ever seen on a maneven when it was set in a grim line. She shook herself inwardly. She'd looked him up once on the Internet, with a sick fascination, and had read that his business methods had been praised and lambasted in equal measures for being cutthroat.
He was a rich playboy tycoon, used to riding roughshod over people. She had to stand up to himmake him see that she wouldn't just succumb like some sacrificial lamb.
He'd dismissed her fawning parents just moments before, with a curt, 'Leave us. I've come here tonight to speak to your daughter alone.'
She hitched up her chin now. 'Why did you come here tonight? I didn't invite you.'
His mouth quirked, mocking her attempt at bravado. 'You must have known that we'd meet sooner or later. Why do you think your parents insisted on your return from England?'
That panic surged back, gripping Isobel tight inside her belly. The fact that her mother hadn't even warned her that he was coming made her go cold inside. She must have anticipated how Isobel might react.
'We're not getting married,' she denied desperately.
He shrugged minutely, unconcerned. 'Not right now, no. But in three years' time we will become man and wife.'
The walls of her life were encroaching around Isobel. This was her worst fear: being marched into a life she had no control over, being forced into a marriage of convenience with someone she didn't love, and growing cynical and bitter just like her own parents. Her vision of a future in Europe, far away from here, was quickly crumbling.
She could feel the colour draining from her face. 'But I don't want to marry you. I don't even know you.' She looked at him then, feeling a little wild. 'I don't want this life. And I don't care if you believe me or not. I would be quite happy to walk away right now and never see you, or this house or Buenos Aires ever again.'
She gestured with a shaking hand, horror taking hold now, alongside her escalating panic at the thought of succumbing to a life with this cold man. 'How can you be so blasé about this? Coming here to meet your future wife when you're quite obviously in the middle of a date? Does that woman out there know that you're in here discussing your marriage?'
He smiled again, a hard smile, and drawled, 'A date? That's cute. The date you refer to took place earlier this evening, but I can assure you that the woman in my car will be perfectly happy once she's in my bed and underneath me. She doesn't care about marriage any more than I do. She's already been twice divorced.'
'You're disgusting.' And yet his words had sent another deeply betraying quiver of awareness through her body.
Rafael shook his head and came closer to Isobel. She stood her ground.
'No, not disgusting. Realistic. Two consenting adults coming together to enjoy one another without any of the barefaced lies most lovers indulge in.' His eyes flicked Isobel up and down insultingly. 'When you become an adult you might appreciate that a little better than you do now. Clearly you haven't moved beyond slushy teen romances.'
Isobel had never felt so angry in all her life. Red spots danced before her eyes. 'It's a pity you never married the fiancée you were prepared to risk this union for. If you had, we wouldn't be discussing this now. Was it your charming cynicism that sent her packing?'
Isobel saw his face darken at her provocation, but she didn't care. She was referring to the fact that he'd ignored the legal agreement between their families to get engaged some eight years previously. Isobel had not known then of his significance in her future life, and she could remember looking at pictures of the gorgeous passionate couple, and thinking how impossibly romantic they had seemed.
But the engagement had died a quick death in a blaze of publicity. There hadn't even been time for Isobel's family's legal team to use the potential marriage as an excuse to get the money owed them from the estancia. As soon as the engagement was off, the agreement stood again. And then, when she'd turned sixteen, her parents had broken the news to her.
When she'd researched him, she'd looked up all the old press reports of Rafael's engagement to the stunningly beautiful Ana Perez, and for the first time, to her mortification, had realised that the reason for their break-up must have been her. Reports alluded to an arranged marriage but never revealed between whom. And since then his reputation with women had invariably been compared with how he dealt with his business concerns: merciless precision, no woman ever lasting longer than a few months.
'No,' Rafael said coldly now, more than a little stunned at how this girl before him was turning his preconceptions of her on their head. 'It's not a pity at all that my engagement didn't work out. It was a blessing in disguise. When we marry it'll be like any other business arrangementwhich is exactly what a good marriage should be.'
He hadn't expected the words to come out so easily, but declaring to this girl that they would marry felt right on a level that disturbed him. His voice became harsh. 'There is no escaping this fate. I've learnt that, Isobel, and you will, too.'
Suddenly, in that instant, something undefinable solidified in Rafael's chest. A sense of inevitability. He'd come here tonight to meet for himself his bride-to-be. He'd come with his mistress in tow, which he knew was reprehensible, but it had made him feel somehow protected.
The fact was, he'd blocked out the reality of this marriage successfully for yearsuntil his solicitor, an old and trusted friend, had rung him earlier that day and said bluntly, 'It's Isobel Miller's eighteenth birthday today. Don't you think you should acknowledge the fact that her parents have been begging an audience for months now? This isn't going to go away, Rafael. You need to deal with it, with her, and the fact that you're not getting any younger. The longer you remain single, the more unstable you will appear in the eyes of your potential clients and colleagues.'
Rafael had muttered something rude, which his solicitor had wisely ignored. The minute he'd mentioned Isobel Miller something tight had formed in Rafael's chestthat sense of a trap closing around him. He wasn't used to being at the mercy of anything. And along with the feeling of entrapment had come the bitter reminder that his ex-fiancée had used that information to expose his one weakness for her own avaricious benefit.
His solicitor had cut in. 'Do you want to jeopardise the estancia? I've warned you before, Rafael, that if you try and get out of this marriage you'll embroil yourself in a huge and lengthy legal battle, and there's every chance you could lose. One of our advantages in this situation is that Isobel's parents seem loath to do battle, too, and that can only be because they need the money so badly.'
Curtly, Rafael had replied, 'Don't worry. I'm not about to risk losing one of my most valuable assets.' His lip had curled. 'Not for a woman.'
His solicitor had sighed audibly with relief. 'I knew you'd see it that way. Well, then, the sooner you can come to terms with this and meet your future bride the better. Her mother has extended to you an invitation to go to her birthday celebration tonight.'
He could have laughed now, thoughIsobel Miller was the one woman who didn't even have to try and seduce him to get him to marry her! He was being served up to her on a plate, and here he stood, listening to her protest against what any other girl would have given her right arm for.
At that moment, in the tense atmosphere of the study, Isobel got a tiny glimpse of indefinable emotion in Rafael's eyes. When had he moved so close? She could see now that his eyes were a deep, dark brown, like molasses, with shifting glimmers of green and goldnot entirely black, as she'd thought.