Read an Excerpt
Dominique couldn't believe what she was hearing. It was as if her worst nightmare had come to life. Still in shock from the news her mother had called to deliver, she was having trouble taking in the rest of the tirade.
'Let me get this straight,' she said to her mother. 'You told Cristiano Cordova where I lived so that he could come and see the baby and What was it you said? See for himself the dreadful conditions in which I'm living?'
She stared at the telephone receiver in her hand as though it were an unexploded bomb, mute outrage gripping her throat while fear and dread cascaded through her bloodstream like a swollen river bursting its banks.
'Why? Why would you do such a thing?'
'Why do you think? I told him because the Cordovas obviously aren't short of a penny or two, and they owe you! Since that good-for-nothing Ramón is dead, and you've been saddled with his child to try and raise on your own instead of finishing your degree, they ought to take some sort of responsibility for what's happened, wouldn't you say?'
'Is that what you told him? That he was responsible for Matilde?'
'Yes!' There was stubborn defiance in the other woman's voice. 'And he agreed!'
'Listen they owe me nothing! It was my own decision to go ahead with the pregnancy and have the baby, and it's nothing to do with anyone else! If Ramón himself wasn't interested in his daughter why do you think for one moment that I would be remotely interested in making contact with the rest of his family? Much less have one of them come visit me!'
'Well, someone should pay for the mess that man got you intoand why shouldn't his family cough up? He ruined your life,Dominique! You were on course for a wonderful career and now look at you!'
For a moment Dominique couldn't speak over the raw pain inside her throat. Her mother made it sound as if she was the biggest failure that ever lived! Was there nothing she could ever do to please her? Already knowing the answer, she fought off the wave of shame and despondency that washed over her and dispiritedly murmured a strained goodbye.
A week on and still she greeted each minute in dread of Cristiano Cordova showing up at her door, possibly wanting to assume some sort of control over her baby's future. The already broken nights she endured, waking to feed Matilde, had been disrupted further by anxiety and fear. The freedom to lead her own life that she'd so desperately sought when she'd finally left her mother's house to care for her baby on her own had been horribly threatened and spoiled.
She had already been feeling strangely disconnected from the rest of the worldthe only light in her life being derived from her beautiful baby girl while other people were looking forward to the holiday season, busy flitting in and out of the shops that were bursting with glittering arrays of Christmas paraphernalia, and counting down the days for the big event itself. The restaurant where Dominique worked as a waitress was already inundated with orders for lunch on Christmas Day, and she could have increased her hours in a heartbeat if she didn't fiercely guard the maximum time she could afford to spend with her baby. But other people's anticipation of Christmas only served to heighten her sense of isolation.
And now her mother had betrayed her. She had colluded with Cristiano CordovaRamón's rich and influential cousinbehind her back, and encouraged the idea that Dominique's baby was now his responsibility, since there was now no hope of Ramón himself ever fulfilling that role. The revelation still had the power to stun her senseless. She was still reeling from the news that Ramón was dead killed in a car accident on some remote mountain pass in Spain. The catalogue of heartbreak since Dominique had met him was surely now complete?
Cristiano declined the offer of more coffee from the smiling air stewardess and, making a steeple of his fingers, stared out at the dazzling vista of pale clouds that resembled sun-struck snow-covered mountain peaks in the sky. For a poignant moment he imagined his young cousin's restless and unhappy spirit, roaming free amongst those selfsame cloudsno longer bound by the constraints of the physical existence that had seemed to cause him so much turmoil and difficulty while he lived Emotion welled up inside him and painfully cramped his throat. If only he had been able to get through to Ramón as he'd longed to get him to see that the family would have forgiven him every transgression if he had only met them halfway
But it was too late for recriminations. The situation was beyond rescue now. Cristiano had never voiced out loud his terrible fear that perhaps Ramón had deliberately sought to end his own life by driving his car over a clifftop that dreadful night but he could not help thinking it just the same, and the thought gave him nightmares.
When a letter had been discovered amongst Ramón's things after the funeralfrom a girl none of the family had ever even heard of before Cristiano and the family had honestly been stunned by its contents. The girl Dominique wrote to tell him news of the birth of her babyRamón's baby and had even included a photograph of the infant. Although things were well and truly over between them, she wrote, she thought he should at least know that he was the father of a healthy and beautiful little girl.
The letter had been dated six months earlier, and though he knew he would have to go to the UK and investigate for himself the legitimacy of the girl's claims, Cristiano had also realised it must fall to him to convey the news that Ramón was deadand that could not wait. But he had not had the opportunity to speak to Dominique herself. Instead, when he had called the telephone number she'd included in her letter, the girl's mother had answered. Upon his revealing to her who he was and why he was calling the woman had not held back.
His 'heartless, good-for-nothing cousin' had wrecked her daughter's life, Cristiano had been told in no uncertain terms, and his family had better do something about it. Dominique had only had a year to go before she finished her degree, and had had a bright future to look forward to. Now, instead, she was weighed down with the responsibilities of a baby!
When Jean Sanderson had calmed down sufficiently for him to get a word in edgeways Cristiano had soothingly but authoritatively told her that if it were true that her daughter's baby was Ramón's then he would of course take steps to ensure their future prospects were comfortable and to her liking. Certainly Dominique would not be denied the opportunity to finish her education. The Cordova family took their responsibilities seriously and would not turn their backs on one of their own. Slightly placated, Mrs Sanderson had then volunteered Dominique's new addressshe had apparently moved out since her letter to Ramónand was living in a 'grubby little bedsit' in one of London's least attractive boroughs.
The accusations had come hard and fast. Dominique's mother's anger and resentment were glaringly evident. Even in death it seemed that Ramón's reckless and thoughtless behaviour was still having massive repercussions on people's lives
Yet again it had been left to Cristiano to smooth the troubled waters his cousin had left in his wake.
Releasing a troubled sigh, he pulled his gaze away from the spectacular view offered by the small window beside him and concerned himself instead with thoughts of his family. A family whose sorrow at losing a beloved son had been unexpectedly eased by the revelation that he'd fathered a child a child they hoped and prayed Cristiano would be bringing back with him on his returnback where they were convinced she belonged
There was a knock at the door, and in the same instant the milk she'd been heating on the stove for hot chocolate boiled over. Cursing softly, Dominique turned off the gas, surveyed the burnt sticky mess clinging to the side of the saucepan, and unhappily mourned the diminishing ability of her once sharp brain to concentrate for even two seconds flat. The trouble was Matilde was teething, and they had both had a horrendously sleepless night. Now fed, and finally asleep, the baby lay cosily wrapped up against the cold in her cot, and Dominique had been looking forward to the comfort of a hot drink for herself.
No doubt the person knocking on the door at that inopportune moment was Katiethe ballet student who lived in the bedsit opposite. Frequently out of milk, sugar, tea, coffee foodanything you cared to nameshe often walked across the landing to see if Dominique could help out. Leaving the cramped space that laughingly masqueraded as a kitchen and padding across the thin, worn carpet in her stockinged feet, Dominique opened the door with a resigned smile already in placeand a swift, silent prayer of thanks that she had done her shopping yesterday, before Matilde's teething problem had kept them both awake for half the night
She stared up at the imposing male on the other side of the door with her heart racing a mile a minute. He was obviously foreigneven if his accent hadn't alerted her to the fact, his dark and striking looks strongly confirmed itand Dominique half closed the door again, feeling sick with dread. 'Who wants to know?' she answered, the smile she had automatically summoned for Katie firmly banished.
'I am Cristiano Cordova Ramón Cordova's cousin. May I come in and speak with you?' he enquired formally.
'No, you can't!' In a panic, Dominique glanced over at the tattered Chinese screen behind which her infant daughter's cot was positionedgrateful that at this angle it was completely hidden from view. 'It was very wrong of my mother to give you my address, and I told her so! I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to turn around and go back to wherever you came from. Because although you want to speak to me, I do not want to speak to you!'
She went to shut the door, but he was too quick for her and grabbed the edge with a grip like steel. Dominique gasped.
'If you shut the door in my face I promise you I will wait outside all night if I have to!' the man warned. 'And I do not make idle promises. So, if you want to avoid the embarrassment of explaining the reason for my presence to your neighbours, I suggest you simply let me come in and talk quietly to you in private.'
Seeing by his steely-eyed, hard-jawed expression that he was more than capable of carrying out an all-night vigil if she went back inside and closed the door, Dominique reluctantly moved away to allow him entrance. Her legs had gone to jelly, and she wondered how she even managed that small feat.
As the tall Spaniard came in through the door she couldn't help glaring at him. From the moment her mother had announced she'd given him her addressand implied that he and his family were now responsible for her predicamentDominique had been quite prepared to dislike him and all he stood for intensely. After all, hadn't she already had a bitter example of how his family could behave in Ramón? Why should this man be any less heartless?
Even though her first view of him was through a red mist of anger, she saw nothing in the striking bronzed face with its sleek, taut lines to change her mind in any way. All she saw was another unwanted authority figure who believed it was his God-given right to try and take control of her and her baby's life, and she wanted to physically push him out the door and yell at him never to come back.
'What do you want to talk to me about?' she demanded, folding her arms to try and still the tremors that had seized her.
'The baby, of course and the fact that her father was my cousin, who is now dead. There are things to discuss relating to both these matters.'
'Well, I don't want you here. Can't you see that? Ramón and I broke up several months ago, and he couldn't have cared less when I told him I was pregnant! I'm really sorry if you've had a wasted journey, but I didn' t ask you to come in the first place!'
'No you did not ask me to come,' Cristiano Cordova replied, his voice smooth but with a rich undertone that made Dominique's senses snap to attention. 'But I would very much be failing in my duty to Ramón if I had elected to stay in Spain and ignore his baby's existence. I found your letter, and I am aware of all that has happened. Now I am here to help alleviate some of the considerable stress and worry you must undoubtedly be under in such a difficult situation.'
'You're not going to take Matilde away from me, so don't even think it!'