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'I assume this is some sort of joke?'
Duque Javier Alejandro Diego Herrera swung away from the castle window that afforded stunning views of the Andalucian countryside and glared at the elderly man in front of him.
'I assure you I would not make a joke of such a serious matter,' Ramon Aguilar replied stiffly. His silver moustache bristled with indignation, but the nervous shuffling of the documents in his hands betrayed his tension. 'The terms of your grandfather's will are most specific. If you do not marry before your thirty-sixth birthday, control of El Banco de Herrera will be awarded to your cousin Lorenzo.'
Javier swore succinctly, his dark brows drawn together and his olive skin stretched taut over his sharp cheekbones. 'Dios!' he spat. 'As my grandfather so often commented, Lorenzo is as feeble as a small child. He has no drive, no ambition. Tell me, what does he have that led Carlos to believe he would make a more credible successor as president of the bank than me?' Incredulity and disbelief were giving way to a level fury that emanated in waves from his lean, whipcord body. In his anger the new Duque was a truly awesome sight and Señor Aguilar cleared his throat nervously.
'He has a wife,' he murmured.
The quiet, almost apologetic comment dropped into the silent room like a pebble thrown into still waters. Javier had been prowling the room like a caged tiger but now he stopped abruptly, every fibre of his concentration directed at the hapless lawyer who had been Carlos Herrera's oldest and most trusted confidant.
'Since I was ten years old my grandfather groomed me to take his place as head of the Herrera family, and more importantly as president of El Banco de Herrera,' Javier hissed, his jaw rigid with the effort of containing his temper. 'Why would he suddenly change his mind?'
The Duque is dead; long live the Duque, he thought cynically. His aristocratic title was of little importance to him; his overriding interest was in taking control of the Herrera family's banking business. Carlos's sonJavier's father was also dead, although Fernando had been cast out of the family long before a drug overdose had ended his life. As the next male heir, Javier had taken his rightful place as the new Duque de Herrera when Carlos died, but it seemed that control of the bankthe golden grailwas still beyond his grasp.
'Are you saying that I have been denied what should be mine because my cousin is married and I am not? That's the only reason?' he demanded grimly, his amber eyes flashing fire for a second before he imposed iron self-control over his emotions and his face resumed its mask of haughty arrogance.
'Your grandfather's dying wish was to leave the bank in the hands of a man who he felt confident would ensure its continued success.'
'And I am that man,' Javier growled impatiently.
Ramon Aguilar continued as if Javier had not spoken. 'There have been concerns among the board in recent months. Carlos was aware of, and even shared, many of those concerns,' he added. As he spoke he scattered a number of photographs onto the deskall featured Javier in the company of a different woman, although it was notable that each of his companions shared similar attributes of blonde hair and an eye-catching cleavage.
Javier glanced briefly at the photos and shrugged his shoulders to indicate his supreme indifference. The women were no more than arm candyhe couldn't even remember most of their names although undoubtedly they had all shared his appetite for mutually enjoyable sex, free from the complication of messy emotions. 'I did not realise that my grandfather expected me to take a vow of celibacy,' he snapped, drawing himself up to his full six-feet-four to pierce Carlos's legal advisor with a disdainful stare.
'He does not. Under the terms of his will he expects you to find a wife.' Ramon Aguilar's nerve held, just, and he returned Javier's gaze steadily. 'And by my estimation you have two months in which to do soor lose control of the bank to Lorenzo. El Banco de Herrera is an old-fashioned, traditional bank '
'Which I intend to drag kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century,' Javier finished darkly.
'Carlos approved of your innovation, and it is true the bank is in need of modernisation and fresh ideas, but you will not push those ideas through without the support of your board,' Ramon advised. 'The directors are cautious and wary of change. They want a president who shares their values of decency and morality and who embraces family lifethey do not enjoy seeing pictures of you and your latest mistress spread across the pages of the gutter press.'
Ramon paused and then continued, 'Carlos was worried that your energetic social life was having a detrimental effect on your judgement. I understand there have been problems with the British subsidiary of the bank. The manager you appointed, Angus Beresford, has proved to be a poor choice.'
One mistake. The knowledge that he had, for the first time in his life, been a poor judge of character had been a festering poison in Javier's head for the past monthsever since he had discovered the extent of Angus Beresford's betrayal. He did not need Ramon to remind him of it. 'I am in control of the situation. The matter is being dealt with, and you can rest assured I will deal with Beresford,' he growled furiously.
Javier's jaw tightened ominously and he crossed the room once more to stare out over the vast Herrera estate. He was master of all he surveyed, but he felt like a king who had been denied his crown. El Banco de Herrera was his. He had spent the last twenty-five years waiting for this moment, and the realisation that his grandfather had not only doubted his abilities but had also expressed those doubts to others was a bitter pill to swallow.
'I am the best man for the job,'he stated tautly. 'How could Carlos doubt it because of a few photos taken by the damn paparazzi? And marriage! Madre de Dios, what good did marriage ever do for my father? My mother was a flamenco dancer with a touring circus and a part-time whore who destroyed Fernando with her affairs. Trust me, I will never award any woman that level of power over me.
'My parents' wretched union was hardly a good advertisement for the holy state of matrimony,'he drawled sardonically. 'What the hell made Carlos believe I would wish to try it?'
'Naturally, your grandfather hoped you would select a bride who shares a similar background to your own, a woman who understands the responsibilities associated with the role of wife to a duque,' Ramon murmured. 'Indeed, Carlos confided in me shortly before his death that he was confident you would marry Lucita Vasquez.'
'And I made it clear to him that I have no intention of marrying a seventeen-year-old child. Dios, Lucita's still at school,' Javier exploded.
'She is young, it's true, but she would make an excellent duquesa. And of course the marriage would have the added benefit of merging two great banking families. Just think,' Ramon said in his softly persuasive voice. 'The houses of Herrera and Vasquez brought together, with you at the helm.'
Javier's last conversation with his grandfather had followed similar lines and now, as then, he recognised the appeal of merging two of Spain's most powerful banks. Carlos had dangled the tempting carrot, but Javier wasn't stupid. He had recognised that it was his grandfather's way of trying to control him, even from beyond the grave. Miguel Vasquez, Carlos's oldest friend, would be breathing down his neck and he would be tied to a spoilt child who had made no secret of her irritating schoolgirl crush on him.
Of course, Carlos had been less than impressed with Javier's outright refusal to marry Lucita. It must have been after that last, bitter exchange that the old man had instructed Ramon to amend his will, Javier thought grimly. Carlos had believed that the pressure of needing to find a wife in such a short time would force Javier to marry Lucitabut the old man had forgotten that his grandson had inherited his stubborn determination. If he had to marry, then marry he would, but it would be to a woman of his own choosing.
His legal team would scrutinise the wording of the will, but he already knew it would be watertight. All his life Carlos had been as wily as a fox, and it seemed that death had not diminished his power. Round one to the old man, Javier acknowledged with a hard smile. But he was utterly determined to win and nothing, not even the inconvenience of having to find a wife, would stop him. 'So, I have two months in which to choose a duquesa,' he murmured coolly. He slid into the leather chair behind his desk and surveyed the grey-haired lawyer seated opposite him. Ramon Aguilar looked tired and drawn. He had been Carlos's legal advisor for forty years, and doubtless the old man's death had hit him hard. None of this was Ramon's fault, Javier conceded, feeling the faintest tug of compassion. There was no point in shooting the messenger. 'Do you think I can do it, Ramon?' His mouth stretched into a slashing grin that spoke volumes of his confidence at his ability to produce a wife before his next birthday.
'I sincerely hope so,' Ramon replied. 'If you're serious about wanting to become the next president of the bank.'
'It's the only thing I've ever wanted and, make no mistake, there's nothing I won't do to realise my goal.' Javier's smile faded so that his face once more appeared to have been sculpted from marble. Hard, implacable and utterly ruthless. Ramon recognised the indomitable will the younger man had inherited from his grandfather, and felt a surge of sympathy for the unknown woman who would soon become the Duquesa de Herrera. Faced with Javier's mesmeric charm, she wouldn't be able to resist him, but it was not for him to warn that Herrera marriages had, throughout history, been made in hell rather than heaven.
Javier stood and extended a hand towards the elderly lawyer. 'We'll meet again two months from now and I will introduce you to my bride.'Already he was making a mental checklist of his various mistresses, silently debating which of them could be persuaded to agree to the shortest marriage on record. He would have to offer a suitable financial incentive, he mused, the full amount only to be paid on the day of their divorce. He wanted no risk of a misunderstanding that the marriage could evolve into the 'happy ever after' variety.
Ramon Aguilar slowly rose to his feet. 'I'll look forward to it. And, on the anniversary of the first year of your marriage, I will be delighted to sign over full control of El Banco de Herrera to you. Until then, and assuming that you produce a bride before your birthday, you will continue in your role as acting president of the bank, but all major decisions regarding the bank's business dealings will be subject to the agreement of myself and my legal team.'
'A year!' The crackling tension in the room splintered as Javier muttered a savage oath. He snatched Carlos Herrera's last will and testament from the lawyer's hands, skimmed the neatly typed words and finally threw the document down on the desk.
'Your grandfather believed he was acting in the best interests of El Banco de Herrera.' Ramon began a faltering explanation but stumbled to a halt beneath Javier's icy stare.
The new Duque threw back his head and his lip curled into a sneering parody of a smile. 'Make no mistake, Ramon,' he growled. 'I will take what is rightfully mine and nothing, certainly not the dictates of a ghost, will stop me.'