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The Society Bride
By Fiona Hood-Stewart
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHE'D been summoned, Ramon Villalba realised. He frowned as he sat astride his fine Passo Fino and stared across the wide, green open spaces where several thousand heads of cattle - all belonging to him - grazed, oblivious of the fact that their owner was once again about to board his company jet in Buenos Aires and head for London.
It was rare these days that his father summoned him. After all, Ramon was thirty-two, and had cut his eye-teeth a long while ago. So the matter must be extremely important and the summons immediately met.
He experienced a moment's concern. Could it be the health of one of his parents' that was the issue here? Surely not. His mother, with whom he had an exceptionally close relationship, would have confided in him. Still, he wasted no time in galloping back to the gracious hacienda, its ancient terracotta walls bathed in late-afternoon sunlight, and having Juanito, his manservant, pack his bags in readiness for the journey.
Twenty-four hours later he was sitting in the book-lined study of his family's home in Eaton Square, trying to absorb the impact of what his father had just said.
"But that's utterly preposterous!' Ramon exclaimed, dragging his fingers through his thick black hair and shaking his head. "As I recollect, Nena Carvajal is not twenty yet - a mere girl. How can you and old Don Rodrigo even contemplate marriage for her?"
"Really, Ramon. Stop being prissy. You sound as if you've never heard of a marriage of convenience."
"Well, certainly not one like this," Ramon countered with feeling, letting his long legs stretch before him and crossing his ankles. His bronzed brow creased. "I don't know what's got into your heads. If Nena thinks of me as anything at all it's probably in the light of an -"
"Rubbish.' His father, a well-dressed man in his late seventies, cut him short briskly. "I doubt if she remembers you at all - which may be for the best."
"There is a very strong reason for this arrangement."
"Oh? And what might that be?' Ramon raised a haughty brow.
"Simply put, Don Rodrigo, her grandfather, is dying."
Ramon frowned and sat up straighter. "What's wrong with him?"
"The big C, I'm afraid. He has six months at the most. Now, can you imagine what might happen to that girl if she's let loose on the world with the kind of money she will inherit? Not to mention the running of Rodrigo's empire," he added, with a quick, sharp look at his son.
"So that's what this is all about," Ramon said slowly. "Rodrigo thinks I might be a suitable candidate to take over, does he?"
"I would say that is a great compliment, considering the vastness and complexity of his empire."
"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Ramon conceded irritably. "There's only one problem."
"Oh?' Don Pedro raised an eyebrow and waited.
"I have no desire to be married."
A moment's silence followed before the older man answered. "Ramon, this marriage to Nena -"
"Who could practically be my daughter," Ramon dismissed disparagingly.
"Hardly. Unless you plan to enter the Guinness Book of Records as a very young father," his parent murmured with a touch of wry humour. "Now, this marriage - as I was saying before you so rudely interrupted me - will hardly curtail your er - lifestyle. I'm sure that Nena has been brought up to expect a marriage of this kind. I haven't, I admit, seen her for several years. She has been at boarding school - the Convent of the Sacre
'Coeur," he continued with a small satisfied smile. "That in itself is a good omen."
"Father, this whole notion is totally absurd!' Ramon exploded. He jumped up from the chair, his lean, athletic figure clad in an exquisitely cut Italian navy silk suit, and began pacing the study. "You'd think it was the Middle Ages. I cannot agree to such a plan."
"At least give it some thought - think about it," Don Pedro said reasonably. "It would, of course, be an incredible opportunity for you. Businesswise, I mean."
Ramon's eyes flashed and he drew himself up taller. "If you think, Father, that I would get myself tangled up in a marriage of convenience out of a desire to improve my already not so shabby business ventures, then let me relieve you of the notion immediately," he replied witheringly.
"I didn't mean it like that," Don Pedro responded carefully, measuring his son's reaction. "Think of your mother and I. We barely knew one another before our marriage. And look how wonderfully it has turned out. The truth is I have never looked at another woman since, and I can assure you I was quite a lad in my day.' He let out a long, low laugh. "And as for age - why, your mother's twenty years my junior. You are barely thirteen years older than Nena. I cannot take that as a consideration. And besides, at thirty-two it is time you thought of setting up your nursery."
"Whatever, Father," Ramon growled, suddenly needing to be alone, to think, to straighten this mess out.
"May I tell my old friend Don Rodrigo that you will at least think about the proposal? To turn it down out of hand would be nothing short of an insult."
This last was true. The honour of being selected by one of the richest men in the world to be his future grandson-in-law, heir to all his responsibilities, was no light matter. Handled wrongly, this could affect a lifelong friendship.
Reluctantly Ramon nodded. "Very well, Father. But on one condition," he declared, his chin jutting firmly, "that I get to see Nena. I presume she has been made aware of the circumstances?"
"Uh, not that I'm aware of," Don Pedro murmured, carefully shuffling a pile of papers on his desk. "All in good time."
"Great," Ramon replied cynically, rolling his eyes. Then, for some inexplicable reason, he avoided delivering the rest of the sentence about to escape his lips. ***
"The Villalbas?' Nena's well-shaped brows creased and she tilted her lovely, lightly tanned face to one side, her flashing green eyes fixed on her grandfather.
"I don't seem to remember them. Did we know them back in Argentina?"
"Of course, my love. But it has been quite a while since they last visited. Certainly not since you went off to school. Pedro Villalba is an old and trusted friend of mine, and his wife Augusta is in some way related to your late grandmother's family."
"Ah.' Nena nodded and smiled. Everyone was always somehow related to the family.
"They are coming to tea tomorrow with their son, Ramon, whom you may remember. He came over once or twice when he was at Eton and then Oxford."
"Sorry, I haven't a clue who he is.' She shook her tawny gold-flecked hair, highlighted by two weeks of playing tennis every day in the South of France, and jumped up. "I'm off to the tournament now. Do you need anything before I go? Water for your pills?' she asked, suddenly concerned.
Her grandfather seemed to have aged much during the past weeks, and she worried about him. Not for nothing had she inherited her deceased French mother's perception and innate capability for running Thurston Manor, their lovely country house near Windsor, and for making sure that her beloved grandfather was cosseted.
Excerpted from The Society Bride by Fiona Hood-Stewart Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. . Excerpted by permission.
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