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Allegra got a white-knuckled grip on the knob and forced her hand to open the door on the past she'd dreaded visiting again. Until one month ago, she'd remembered nothing of the previous five months.
Much of it was still shrouded in shadow. But the memories that were clear nearly killed her.
Her precious baby was dead. The husband she'd loved beyond words hadn't inquired about her health since the accident.
It was as if she'd died that day. God knows she'd wished she had after she'd realized she was to blame for the accident.
"Miguel doesn't deserve you," her uncle had told her more times than she could recall. "Divorce him."
The thought of dissolving her marriage sickened her, but she couldn't move forward with her life if she was bound in an estranged marriage. No, she needed closure.
She had to come to grips with her daughter's death. She had to sever all ties to the life that had held such promise in Cancún. And she had to do it here where it had begun.
Allegra drew in a shaky breath and stepped into the beach house where her love with Miguel had begun. She'd steeled herself to be greeted with an onslaught of cherished and troubled memories, but she was totally unprepared to cope with this soft whispering sense that she'd just come home after a long, arduous journey.
The rightness of being here played over and over in her mind as she stood on the threshold a moment and tried to slow her racing heart. It was useless, for her nerves were tied in tight apprehensive knots.
Run, her mind screamed. Run back to England and the promise of a safe, quiet life there. Run away from the tempting vibrancy that made her feel alive for the first time inmonths.
Determined to face the past head-on, she walked into the sala as she had countless times before. The spun-gold sunlight that streamed through the bank of windows to dance over the pasta tiles seemed far too welcoming for a place that should still be deep in mourning.
She'd notified the housekeeper of her return, and that kind woman must have hurried to tidy the place. She'd even left the windows open to air the house out.
It looked as if Allegra had stepped out for a day of shopping and had just returned. If only that were true—
"Señora, where would you like me to place your luggage?" her driver asked her.
"In the upstairs bedroom facing the sea, please."
Allegra was unwilling to step foot in the master bedroom this soon. Besides sleep had been a stranger to her of late. And the memories made in that room were better left undisturbed.
As if she could ever forget Miguel.
The driver toted her bags upstairs and was back in a heartbeat, hand extended. Allegra paid him for the fare from the airport, plus a generous tip.
"Gracias, señora," he said, smiling broadly in a gracious manner she'd once taken for granted.
She'd taken so much for granted. What was it they said? You never appreciated what you had until it was gone?
The heavy ache of loss washed over her like the incoming tide, threatening to erode her moorings. The doctor's warning that she wasn't strong enough to go through with this rocked her shaky confidence.
She hated the uncertainty. Hated the black void still there in her memory.
Allegra swallowed the impulsive request that the departing driver return her to the airport. She closed and locked the door, then pressed her forehead against the cool wood until her breathing steadied. Leaving would solve nothing.
Closure. She had to shut the door on the past and walk away a new woman.
She had to find peace of mind. She could think of no better place than her beach house.
Allegra turned toward the shady palapa where she'd relished taking her afternoon tea and drank in the tranquil sights that she'd fallen in love with when she came here two years ago. Gentle steps led down to the expanse of white sand that would be warm underfoot.
If she closed her eyes she could see herself the day she moved into this house. She'dhurried into her bikini and dashed down to the private beach. The water was warm and clear, and the gentle breeze was a sensuous massage on her skin.
England had been a world away, and she'd promised herself she'd partake of every delight the Yucatàn had to offer while she made the biggest decision of her life—should she marry the very proper English doctor that she'd dated for over one year?
She liked him. She loved him in a way. But she wasn't sure of making that final commitment.
That was when Miguel had risen out of the surf like a pagan god, his bronzed body long and lean, his smile slow and sensuous, his eyes promising her pleasures she'd barely tasted.
She shook her head and smiled at that memory. She'd been sure Miguel was a beach bum. How wrong she'd been.
Even after all that had gone wrong, she remembered well how he'd wrap his arms and legs around her, holding her so close after they made love that she believed they were one. She'd been helplessly naive. Hopelessly in love.
She'd known whatever happened here, she'd never be able to marry her doctor.
Then too soon the hot Latin lover who'd swept her off her feet on the beach and caught her up in his privileged world suddenly became too busy building an empire to spend more than stolen moments with his wife and newborn child.
She'd made excuses for him that he needed time away from a fussy infant and frazzled wife. She'd waited for her lover, her husband, her hero.
But he never came.
The sun slanted just so through the windows to catch the gilded edge of a lone picture frame on the far étagère. For a moment she couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't move.
She crossed to the étagère on legs that trembled. Her hands shook as she reached for the picture, her grip too tight, her heart beating too fast. Her precious baby, her Cristobel.
She'd never wanted anything as much as she'd wanted this beautiful child conceived in love. A gift from God, Miguel had said, and she'd agreed.
Her trembling finger traced the plump cheek of the life she and Miguel created when their love was new and unencumbered. How could she have been so careless with this child?
She gathered the picture to her heart and squeezed her eyes shut, but her daughter's smile filled her mind's eye and her gurgling laugh replaced the quiet that crashed in the room like an angry sea. One racking sob escaped her, then another.
Her fault, her conscience needled her as she crossed to the sofa with the photo digging into her flesh and tears blinding her to cruel reality. Her fault.
Miguel took less than two steps into the beach house before the provocative scent that was uniquely Allegra's teased his senses. His angry gaze scanned the sala and found her sitting on the sofa, head bowed.
This time seeing her wasn't a trick of his imagination. This time the fragrance and the woman were real.
This time retribution was in his grasp.
Though he'd known she was finally coming back, his heart gave a sharp, painful kick that was at odds with his fury. It had been that way from the moment he'd first met her, standing like an ethereal angel at the edge of the sea, her skin white as cream and just as soft.
She'd broken through his defenses and took command of his waking and sleeping thoughts. For the first time in his life he'd nearly lost control of his emotions but that was never to be. Instead he had shown his feelings by keeping her safe— hiring a personal guard to protect her from danger when he wasn't there to protect her himself.
He stepped back from the sensual vortex that sucked him closer and closer to her. And just when he'd feared he'd judged her wrong, she'd proved she was a scheming vixen.
His fingers dug into the thirsty towel he'd draped around his neck as he crossed the cool tile floor to her. The sand he tracked in crunched underfoot, but she didn't seem to notice.
She slept soundly, as if she didn't have a care or was exhausted. He suspected the latter when he drew near.
The fading light played over her porcelain features and frail form. His brows slammed together and unease bubbled in his gut, for she was far too pale and far too thin—her simple blouse and slacks hung on her.
The worry she spurred in him infuriated him, for she deserved his fiery wrath, not his concern. He had every reason to hate her. He did hate her!
He despised that she could slumber when sleep had been a stranger to him for six long months.
Yet looking at her roused those tender emotions as well as the memories that never died. He'd seen her a thousand times in his dreams: laughing, flirtatious, sensuous. He'd seen her happy, angry and sad.
But he'd never seen her like this.
She embodied the image of a fragile waif who had washed up on the shore. Far too delicate to wage a battle with him.
And this reunion would be a battle, for he'd not capitulate to her desires. No. He'd vowed to make her regret her callous disregard of their daughter, and her marriage vows.
He leaned close to shake her awake then froze when he saw the picture frame clutched to her chest. jDios mio! She dared to cradle Cristobel's picture to her heart?
He lurched back and scrubbed a shaky hand over his face, torn between ripping the framed picture from her or taking her in his arms. Did the memories that tormented him do so to her as well? Was she needled with regret?
The streaks of mascara on her pale cheeks confirmed she'd shed recent tears. He had that satisfaction of knowing she'd been touched with grief.
But her remorse came far too late.
She'd brought about the destruction of their marriage and their family the day she cast her vows aside. She'd proved to him that he'd been right to hold a part of himself from her.
For instead of remaining in Cancún to share their grief and see to their daughter's burial, she'd flitted off to England with her lover. She'd forgotten her husband and the baby lying cold in her grave.
But he hadn't forgotten her perfidy.
He jerked the towel from around his neck with a snap and flung it on a nearby chair. Bits of sand peppered the room in a glittering shower of white.
The woman before him stirred, a jerky movement of one coming awake with the knowledge something wasn't quite right. Every nerve in his body snapped and sizzled the second she clearly realized he was standing over her.
Their gazes clashed like angry froth on the shoals.
His blazed with the anger and torment that burned in his soul. Hers opened wide and glinted with apprehension.
He allowed a grim smile. "Buenos noches, querida. How good of you to return home at last."
She blinked and sat up quickly, clearly snapping out of her wary spell. "How good of you to be here to greet me." Her lips thinned as she raked his near naked form with a cool, appraising look. "For a change."
It was a clean hit he didn't deserve. Sí, he'd spent weeks away from her before their daughter's birth, but he'd needed to put distance between them at a time when her body was lush and tempting him to toss his reservations aside. It was then he had realized the hold she had over his emotions. He knew from past experience that with love came a fear of loss sharp and cold.
So he delved into business. He wasn't about to enlighten his unfaithful wife about his dealings. No, he'd learned that lesson the hard way years ago.
He was a Gutierrez. Like generations before him, he kept his business apart from his family life. It was the only way and she would learn to live with it.
Except she hadn't learned. She'd sought affection in the arms of another man.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"There is a tropical storm brewing," he said. "I came to make preparations."
"Sí. The waters are calmer before the storm." Like this reunion with her promised to be?
She looked around the sala, the framed photo still clutched tight to her chest. Her brow was creased in confusion or irritation—he didn't care which, for her feelings meant nothing to him.
"You've come here often," she said.
"It is convenient to spend the night here when I'm detained in the city on business." In truth, he came here to reflect on all he'd had in his grasp, and all he'd lost.
"As I recall, you spent more time away from the casa than you did in residence."
He gave a lazy shrug when he felt anything but nonchalant, for the peevish tone that crept into her voice was a barb in his skin—it sounded as if she blamed him for what had happened.
"Why did you come back?" he said.
He waved a negligent hand as if bored. "Meaning?"
She drew in a shaky breath that was at odds with her prim outward show. "I want to visit Cristobel's grave." She gave the room a longing glance. "I wish to sell this house." Her eyes locked with his. "I want a divorce."
He'd expected this, yet the cool order in which she'd delivered her wants chafed him. "Did you go back to your doctor?"
"Of course not."
He believed her. She'd moved past that man. Past him as well. "Our daughter is laid to rest amid her ancestors."
Her throat worked. "I expected she would be, but you can't stop me from visiting my child's grave."
He could if he wished. It would take no more than a simple request, and Allegra Vandohrn would find herself deported to England.
"I will take you there," he said.
She tensed up at that. "I don't require your company."
"You will have it, regardless."
He waited for her to argue the point. She simply heaved a sigh and gave a shaky nod, but his English rose soon proved she had thorns. "How often have you availed yourself of my house?"
"Whenever I wished to," he said, intrigued by her ire.
"Your arrogance amazes me," she said, the soprano pitch in her contralto voice stopping him. "You could have stayed at a hotel. You could have driven back to your hacienda."
"I chose not to." He kept his expression blank when his insides rampaged with fury, but he welcomed the anger over the other emotions that threatened to blindside him. "I prefer to avoid the crowds at the hotels. As you know, the drive can be treacherous when one is weary or reckless."