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New Zealand, now…
"I have come to discuss the terms of our fathers' agreement. It is time we marry."
From the second his sleek gray Eurocopter had landed on the helipad close to the house she'd wondered what had brought Alexander del Castillo here. Now she knew. She could hardly believe it.
Loren Dubois studied the tall near stranger commanding the space of her mother's formal sitting room. Her eyes drank in the sight of him after so long. Dressed all in black, his dark hair pushed back from his forehead and his brown-black eyes fixed firmly on her face, he should have been intimidating but instead she wondered whether she'd conjured up an age-old dream.
Marry? Her heart jumped erratically in her chest and she tried to force it back to its usual slow and steady rhythm. Years ago, she'd have leaped at the opportunity, but now? With age had come caution. She wasn't a love-struck teenager anymore. She'd seen firsthand what an unhappy alliance could do to a couple, as her parents' tempestuous marriage had attested. She and Alexander del Castillo didn't even know one another anymore. Yet, for some reason, the way he'd proposed marriage—in typical autocratic del Castillo fashion—made her go weak at the knees.
She gave herself a swift reality check. Who was she kidding? He hadn't proposed. He'd flat out told her, as if there was no question that she'd accept. It didn't help that every fiber in her body wanted to do just that.
Wait, she reminded herself. Slow down.
It had been ten years since she'd laid eyes on him. Ten years since her fifteen-year-old heart had been broken and she'd been dragged to New Zealand by her mother after the divorce. A long time not to hear from someone by any standards, let alone from the man she had been betrothed to from the cradle.
Even so, a part of her still wanted to leap at the suggestion. Loren took a steadying breath. Although their engagement had always been the stuff of fairy tales, she was determined to stay firmly rooted in the present.
"Marry?" she responded, drawing her chin up slightly as if it could give her that extra height and lessen Alex's dominance over her. "You arrive here with no prior warning—in fact, no contact at all since I left Isla Sagrado—and the first thing you say to me is that it's time we marry? That's a little precipitate, wouldn't you say?"
"Our betrothal has stood for a quarter of a century. I would say our marriage is past due."
There it was—that delicious hint of accent in his voice, characteristic of the Spanish-Franco blend of nationalities of their home country, Isla Sagrado. It was an accent she'd long since diluted with her time in New Zealand, yet from his lips the sound was like velvet stroking bare skin. Her body responded to the timbre of it even as she fought down the wave of longing that spiraled from her core. Had she missed him that much?
Of course she had. That much and more. But she was grown-up now. A woman, not a child, nor a displaced bratty teen. Loren attempted to inject a fine thread of steel into her voice.
"A betrothal that no one seriously expected to be fulfilled, surely."
Somehow she had to show him she wouldn't be such a pushover. In all the time since she'd left Isla Sagrado he'd made no contact whatsoever. Not so much as a card at Christmas or her birthday. His indifference had hurt.
"Are you saying that your father made such a gesture lightly when he offered your hand?"
Loren laughed, the sound of it hollow even to her ears. She still missed her father with a physical ache, even though he'd been dead these past seven years. With him had gone her last link to Isla Sagrado and, she'd believed, to Alex. But now Alex was very much here and she didn't know how to react. Stay strong, she told herself. Above all, stay strong. That's the only way to earn the respect of a del Castillo.
"A hand that was little more than three months old when it was promised to you—you yourself were only eight," she said with as much bravado as she could muster.
Alex moved a step toward her. She almost felt the air part to allow him passage; he had that kind of presence. Despite her inexperience with men of Alex's caliber, it was one she responded to instinctively.
Alex had always been magnetic, but the past ten years had seen a new maturity settle on his broad shoulders, together with a stronger and more determined line to his jaw. He looked older than the thirty-three years she knew him to be. Older and harder. Certainly not a man who took "no" for an answer.
"I'm not eight anymore. And you—" he paused and ran his eyes over her body "—you are most certainly no longer a child."
Loren's skin flared hot, as if he'd touched her with more than a glance. As if his long strong fingers had stroked her face, her throat, her breasts. She felt her nipples tighten and strain against the practical cotton of her bra. And the longing within her grew harder to resist.
"Alex," she said, her voice slightly breathless, "you don't know me anymore. I don't know you. For all you know I'm already married."
"I know you are not."
He knew? What else did he know about her, she wondered. Had he somehow kept tabs on her all this time?
"It would be foolish for us to marry. We don't even know if we're compatible."
"We have the rest of our lives to learn the details of what we can do to please one another."
Alex's voice was a low murmur and his eyes dropped to her mouth. Please or pleasure? Which had he really meant, she thought, as she struggled against the urge to moisten her lips with her tongue. The longing sharpened and drew into a tight coil deep within her. Loren fought back a moan—the pure, visceral response to his mere gaze shocking her with its intensity.
Her lack of experience with men had never bothered her before this moment. All her dealings with guests and male staff here at her mother's family's sheep and cattle station had been platonic and she'd preferred it that way. It had been difficult enough to settle into the isolation of the farm without the complications of a relationship with someone directly involved with the day-to-day workings of the place. Besides, anything else would have felt like a betrayal—to her father's promise and to the lingering feelings she still bore for Alex.
Now, that lack of experience had come back to haunt her. A man like Alex del Castillo would certainly expect more than what she had to offer. Would demand it.
In her younger years, she'd adored Alex with the kind of hero worship that a child had for an attractive older person—and, oh yes, he'd been attractive from the moment he'd drawn his first breath. She'd seen the photos to prove it. She'd believed that adoration had deepened into love, love not dimmed by Alex's vague tolerance of the scrawny kid who followed him like a shadow around the castillo that had been his family home for centuries.
For as long as she could remember she'd plagued her father to repeat the story of how Alex's dad, Raphael, had saved him from drowning on the beach below the castillo after a crazy dare between friends had almost turned deadly. And she'd hung on his every word as he'd reached the part where, in deepest gratitude, he'd promised his newborn daughter in marriage to Raphael's eldest son.
But her childish dreams of happily ever after with her fairy-tale prince were quite different from the virile, masculine reality of the man in front of her. Every move he made showed that Alex had a degree of sensual knowledge and experience she couldn't even begin to imagine, much less match. It was exciting and intimidating all at once. Was she already in over her head?
"Besides," Alex said, his voice still low, pitched only for her ears, "it is time now that I marry and who better than the woman to whom I've been affianced all her life?"
Alex's dark brown eyes bored into hers, daring her to challenge him. But, surprisingly, beneath the dare, Loren saw something else reflected in their depths.
While he'd appeared so strong and self-assured from the moment he'd alighted from the helicopter and strode toward their sprawling schist rock home nestled near the base of the Southern Alps, there was now a hint of uncertainty in his gaze. As if he expected some resistance from Loren to the idea that they fulfill the bargain struck between two best friends so long ago.
The scent of his cologne wove softly around her like an ancient spell, invading her senses and scrambling her mind. Rational thought flew out the window as he took another step closer to her, as his hand reached for her chin and tilted her face up to his.
His fingers were gentle against her skin. Her breath stopped in her chest. He bent his head, bringing his lips to hers—their pressure warm, tender, coaxing. His hand slid from her jaw to cup the back of her neck.
Loren's head spun as she parted her lips beneath his and tasted the intimacy of his tongue as it gently swept the soft tissue of her lower lip. A groan rippled from her throat and suddenly she was in his arms, her body aligned tightly against the hard planes of his chest, his abdomen. Her arms curved around him, snaking under the fine wool of his jacket and across the silk of his shirt. The heat of his skin through the finely woven fabric seared her hands. She pressed her fingertips firmly into the strong muscles of his back.
She fit into the shape of his body as though she had indeed been born to the role, and as his lips plundered hers, all she could, or wanted to, think of was how it felt to finally be in his arms. Not a single one of her frustrated teenage fantasies had lived up to the reality.
This was more, so much more than she'd ever dreamed. The strength and power of him in her arms was overwhelming and she clung to him with the longing of a lifetime finally given substance. It barely seemed real but the solid presence of him, his skillful mouth, the sensation of his fingertips massaging the base of her scalp, all combined to be very, very real indeed.
Every nerve in her body was alive, gloriously alive, and begging for more. She'd never experienced such a depth of passion with another man and was certain she never would.
She knew to her very soul that this connection, this instant magnetic pull between them, was meant to be forever, just as their fathers had preordained. And, with this one embrace, she knew she wanted it all.
In the distance she heard the front door slam, its heavy wooden thud echoing down the hardwood floor of the main hallway. Reluctantly she loosened her grip and forced herself to draw away from Alex's embrace. The instant she did so, she almost sobbed. The loss of his warmth, his touch, was indescribable. Loren fought free of the sensual fog that infused her mind as her mother swept into the sitting room, the staccato tap of her swift footfall fading into silence as she stepped onto the heirloom Aubusson carpet.
"Loren! Whose is that helicopter out on the pad? Oh!" she said, displeasure twisting her patrician features. "It's you."
It was hardly the kind of welcome Naomi Simpson generally prided herself on, Loren noted with a trace of acerbity. As her mother's gaze darted between her and Alex, Loren fought not to smooth her hair and clothing, drawing instead on every ounce of her mother's training to appear aloof and in control—at least as far as her hammering heartbeat rendered her capable.
Alex remained close at her side, one arm now casually slung about her waist, his fingers gently stroking the top of her hip through her red merino wool sweater. Tiny sizzling tendrils of electricity feathered along her skin at his lazy touch and she found it hard to focus.
Her mother had no such difficulty.
"Loren? Would you care to explain?"
There was no entreaty in Naomi's words. Even phrased as a question she demanded answers and, if the frozen look of fury on her face was any indicator, she wanted those answers right now.
"Mother, you remember Alex del Castillo, don't you? "
"I do. I can't say I ever expected to see you here. I'd hoped we were completely shot of Isla Sagrado the day we left."
With typical Gallic charm Alex nodded toward Naomi. "It is a pleasure to see you again, Madame Dubois."
"I wish I could say the same. And, just for the record, I go by Simpson now," Naomi answered. "Why are you here?"
"Mother!" Loren protested.
"Don't worry, Loren," Alex murmured into her ear. "I will deal with your mother."
The warmth of his breath against the shell of her ear sent a tiny tremor down her spine. He exaggerated the two syllables of her name, emphasizing the last to give it an exotic resonance totally at odds with her everyday existence here on the station.
"Nobody needs to deal with anyone," she replied. She cast a stern look at Naomi. "Mother, you are forgetting your manners. That is not the way we treat guests here at the Simpson Station."
"Guests are one thing. Ghosts from the past are quite another."
Naomi threw herself into the nearest chair and glared at Alex.
"I'm sorry, Alex, she's not normally so rude," Loren apologized. "Perhaps you should go."
"I think not. There are matters that need to be discussed," Alex answered, his attention firmly on Naomi's bristling presence.
He guided Loren to one of the richly upholstered sofas before settling his long frame at her side. A shiver of awareness rippled through her as his presence imprinted along her body.
"I believe you know why I'm here. It is time for Loren and me to fulfill our fathers' promise to one another."
Naomi's snort was at total odds with her elegant appearance.
"Promise? More like the ramblings of two crazy men who should have known better. No one in the developed world would sanction such an archaic suggestion."
"Archaic or not, I feel bound to honor my father's wish. Much as I imagine Loren does, also."