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Alejandro Navarro Vasquez, the Conde Olivares, sat on his superb black stallion in the shade of an orange grove and surveyed the valley that had belonged to his ancestors for over five hundred years. On this fine spring morning, below a clear blue sky, it was a gorgeous view encompassing thousands of acres of fertile earth and woodland. He owned the land as far as the eye could see, but his lean, darkly handsome features were grim as they had often been since the breakdown of his marriage almost two and a half years earlier.
He was a landowner and wealthy, but his family which every Spaniard cherished far beyond material richeshad been ripped asunder by his imprudent marriage. For a male as strong, proud and successful as Alejandro, it was a bitter truth that undermined his every achievement. He had followed his heart and not his head and he had married the wrong woman, a very expensive mistake for which he was still paying the price. His half-brother, Marco, had taken a job in New York, cutting off all contact with his mother and siblings. Yet if Marco, whom Alejandro had helped to raise after their father's premature death, had appeared before him at that moment could he have forgiven the younger man and urged him back to his childhood home with sincerity and warm affection?
Alejandro swore under his breath as he pondered that merciless question and the less than acceptable negative answer that he would have had to give it. However, when it came to Jemima, there was no forgiveness in his heart, only outrage and aggression. He nursed a far from charitable desire for vengeance against the wife and the brother who had together betrayed his trust and his love. Ever since Jemima had walked out on their marriage and disappeared, defying his wishes to the last, Alejandro had burned with a desire for justice, even while his keen intelligence warned him that there was no such thing when it came to affairs of the heart.
His mobile phone vibrated and, suppressing a groan of impatience, for it was always a struggle to protect his rare moments of leisure, he tugged it out. His ebony brows rose when he learned that the private detective he had hired to find Jemima had arrived to see him. He rode swiftly back to the castle, wondering impatiently if Alonso Ortega had finally managed to track down his estranged wife.
'My apologies for coming to see you without an appointment, Your Excellency,' the older man murmured with punctilious good manners and a promising air of accomplishment. 'But I knew you would want to hear my news as soon as possible. I have found the Condesa.'
'In England?' Alejandro questioned and, having had that long-held suspicion confirmed, he listened while Ortega furnished further details. Then, unfortunately, at that point his mother, the dowager countess, entered the room. A formidable presence, Dona Hortencia settled acid black eyes on the private detective and demanded to know if he had finally fulfilled the purpose of his hire. At the news that he had, a rare smile of approval lightened her expression.
'There is one more fact I should add,' Ortega revealed in a reluctant tone of voice, evading the uncomfortably intense scrutiny of his noble hostess. 'The Condesa now has a child, a little boy of around two years of age.'
Alejandro froze and a yawning silence greeted the detective's startling announcement.
The door opened again and his older sister, Beatriz, entered with a quiet apology to her brother for the interruption. She was hushed into silence by her domineering mother, who said glacially, 'That wanton English witch who married your unlucky brother has given birth to a bastard.'
Horrified at such an announcement being made in front of Alonso Ortega, Beatriz shot her brother an appalled glance and hastened to offer the detective refreshments in an effort to change the subject to one less controversial. His discomfited sister, Alejandro appreciated, would quite happily sit and discuss the weather now while he, her more primitive brother, was strongly tempted to seize hold of Ortega's lapels and force every single fact from the man without further ado. But, possibly sensing his employer's impatience, the detective handed Alejandro a slim file and hastily excused himself.
'A child?' Beatriz gasped in shock and consternation the instant the door had closed on the detective's departure. 'But whose child?'
His profile set like granite, Alejandro answered his sister only with a dismissive shrug. It was certainly not his child, but for him that had to be the biggest badge of ignominy he had ever endured. Yet another metaphorical nail in Jemima's coffin, he conceded bitterly. Jemima, he had learned the hard way, knew exactly how best to put a man through an emotional and physical wringer. Dios mio, another man's child!
'If only you had listened to me,' Dona Hortencia lamented. 'The instant I met that wicked young woman I knew she was wrong for you. You were one of the biggest matrimonial prizes in Spain and you could have married anyone'
'I married Jemima,' Alejandro pointed out tersely, for he had never had much time for the older woman's melodrama.
'Only because she mesmerised you like the shameless hussy she is. One man was never going to be enough for her. Thanks to her, my poor Marco is living on the other side of the world. That she could have given birth to an illegitimate child while still bearing our name is the most disgusting thing I ever'
'Enough!' Alejandro incised with crushing force to close out that carping voice. 'There is no point to such recriminations now. What is done is done.'
Dona Hortencia, her lined face full of anger and malice, rested accusing eyes on his lean strong visage. 'But it is not done yet, is it? You still haven't begun divorce proceedings.'
'I will travel to England and see Jemima as soon as the arrangements can be made,' Alejandro pronounced grittily.
'Send the family lawyer! There can be no need for you to make a personal trip to England,' his mother protested with vigour.
'There is every need,' Alejandro contradicted with all the quiet, unhesitating assurance of his rich, well-educated and extremely aristocratic background. 'Jemima is still my wife.'
As Dona Hortencia broke into another barrage of loud objections Alejandro lost patience. 'I inform you of my intentions only as a matter of courtesy. I do not require either your permission or your approval.'
Alejandro retired to the privacy of his study and poured himself a stiff brandy. A child? Jemima had had a child. He was still in shock at that revelation, not least because he could hardly forget that his wife had miscarried his baby shortly before she'd left him. That was how he knew beyond any shadow of doubt that this child, which she had given birth to since, then could not possibly be his. So, was the boy Marco's baby? Or some other man's? Such speculation was sordid, he acknowledged with a distaste that slivered through his lean powerful frame like a knife blade.
He leafed through the file but the facts were few. Jemima was now living in a Dorset village where she ran a florist's shop. For a moment as he allowed himself to think about his estranged wife memories threatened to overwhelm him, but he shut them out, utilising the fierce intelligence and self-discipline that were second nature to him. Yet where had either trait been when he got involved with Jemima Grey in the first place?
He could make no excuses for his behaviour because he had freely acknowledged the huge and irrefutable differences between them even before he married her. Of course, what had mesmerised him thento borrow his mother's expressionwas Jemima's superlative sex appeal. Like many men, he had been more vulnerable to that temptation than he had ever realised he might be.
Possibly life prior to that point had spoiled him with too many easy female conquests. His failure to keep a lid on his fierce sexual desire to possess Jemima's pale slim body had proved to be his fatal weakness, he assured himself with grim conviction. Fortunately, however, the passage of time and the process of hard disillusionment he had experienced during his short-lived marriage had obliterated Jemima's desirability factor entirely.
His ill-judged marriage had, after all, virtually destroyed his family circle. But in the short term, Jemima had no family support of her own and she was still his legal wife; regardless of his feelings on that score she remained his responsibility. As did her child, whom the law would deem to be his child until a divorce was finalised, Alejandro conceded, irate at that demeaning fact. He had to go to England.
No Conde Olivares since the fifteenth century had ever been known to act as a coward or to shirk his duty, no matter how unpleasant it might be. Even in the most trying circumstances, Alejandro expected no less of himself. He reckoned that Jemima was fortunate to be a twenty-first-century woman, for his medieval ancestors would have locked an unfaithful wife up in a convent or killed her for inflicting such a stain on the family honour. Though at least his less civilised ancestors had possessed the power of retaliation, he reflected broodingly.
While Jemima wrapped the bouquet in clear, decorative cellophane, Alfie peered round the corner of the shop counter, his big brown eyes dancing with mischief. ''Ello,' he said chirpily to the waiting customer, shyness not being one of Alfie's personality traits.
'Hello. He's a beautiful child,' the woman remarked, smiling down at Alfie as the toddler looked up at her with his irrepressible grin.
It was a compliment that often came Alfie's way, his mother conceded as she slotted the payment in the till, while wondering what age her son would reach before that particular description embarrassed him. But like father like son, she thought ruefully, and in looks Alfie was very much a product of his Spanish father's genes, with gorgeous dark brown eyes, olive-tinted skin and a shock of black silky hair. All he had inherited from his less exotic mother was her rampant curls. On the inside, however, Alfie had all the easy warmth of his mother's essentially optimistic nature and revealed only the occasional hint of his father's infinitely darker and more passionate temperament.
With a slight shiver, Jemima pushed that daunting thought back out of her mind again. With Alfie playing with his toy cars at her feet, she returned to fashioning a flower arrangement requested by a client who had photographed a similar piece of floral art at a horticultural show. Pure accident had brought Jemima to the village of Charlbury St Helens at a crisis point in her life and she had never regretted staying on and laying the foundations for her new future there.
The only work she'd been able to find locally while she'd been pregnant was as an assistant at a flower shop. She had needed to earn back her self-respect by keeping busy and positive. Discovering that she had a very real interest in floristry, she had found more than a job to focus on and had since studied part-time for formal qualifications. By the time her employer decided to retire, owing to ill health, Jemima had had the courage and vision to take over the business and expand it by taking on occasional private projects that encompassed small weddings and other functions.
She was so proud of running her own business that sometimes she had to pinch herself to believe that she could have come so far from her humble beginnings. Not bad for the daughter of a violent, criminal father who had never worked if he could help it, and a downtrodden, alcoholic mother, who had died when her husband crashed a stolen car. Jemima had never dared to develop any aspirations as a teenager. Nobody in her family tree had ever tried to climb the career or social ladders.
'Those kinds of ideas aren't for the likes of us. Jem needs to get a job to help out at home,' her mother had told the teacher who'd tried to persuade the older woman that her daughter should stay on at school to study for her A-level exams.
'You're like your motherdumb as a rock and just about as useful!' her father had condemned often enough for that label to have troubled Jemima for many year afterwards.
With lunch eaten, she walked Alfie down to his session at the playgroup in the village hall, wincing when her son bounded boisterously through the door calling his friends' names at the top of his voice. Alfie, named for his great-grandfather on Jemima's mother's side of the family, was very sociable and full of energy after spending the morning cooped up at the shop with his mother. Although Jemima had created a play corner in the backstore room for her child, there really wasn't enough space to house a lively little boy for long. With the help of a childminder, she had often contrived to keep Alfie with her during working hours, but now that he was of an age to join the playgroup in the afternoons and she no longer attended floristry classes she needed a lot less childcare. Considering that her close friend and former childminder, Flora, was now often too busy with her bed-and- breakfast operation to help out as much, Jemima was grateful for that fact.
It was a pleasant surprise therefore when Flora came into the shop an hour later and asked Jemima if she had time for a coffee. Brewing up in the small kitchen, Jemima eyed her red-headed friend and read the other woman's uneasiness with a frown. 'What's up?'
'It's probably nothing. I meant to come over and tell you at the weekend, but a whole family booked in with me on Saturday and I was run off my feet,' Flora groaned. 'Apparently some guy in a hire car was hanging around the village last Thursday and someone saw him taking a picture of your shop. He was asking questions about you in the post office as well.'
Jemima stilled, dark blue eyes widening while her heart-shaped face paled below her cloud of wildly curling strawberry-blonde hair and the stance of her tiny slender figure screamed tension. Just an inch over five feet in height, she had reminded the more solidly built Flora of a delicate blown-glass angel ornament when they'd first met, but she had later appreciated that nobody as down-to-earth and quirky as Jemima could be seen for long in that improbable light. However, her friend was unquestionably beautiful in an ethereal way and if men could be equated to starving dogs, Jemima was the equivalent of a very juicy bone, for the male sex seemed to find her irresistible. Locals joked that the church choir had been on the brink of folding before Jemima had joined and a swell of young men had soon followed in her wake, not that any of them had since got anywhere with her, Flora reflected wryly.