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A Spanish Marriage
By Diana Hamilton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"MUST you leave us tomorrow, Javier? We don't see nearly enough of you. Your father and I go to the coast in one week, as you know. Spend it here with us? Just one more week of your time; it's not too much to ask?"
"Sorry, Mama." Genuine regret darkened Javier Masters' smoke-grey eyes as he accepted his mother's huff of exasperation. In her mid-fifties Isabella Maria was still the dark-haired, proud-eyed Spanish beauty his English father had fallen fathoms-deep in love with thirty years ago when he had been in his mid-forties and, so he often said, had resigned himself to never finding a woman he could contemplate spending the rest of his life with.
Isabella Maria drew herself stiffly upright in her brocaded chair. "Hah! So much for your always saying how much you love being here!"
A log fell in the huge stone hearth, sending sparks flying. Javier unfolded his long legs, left the squashy confines of the sofa and went to tend the fire, a necessary indulgence now that the cold winds from the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada heralded the approach of winter. His father's, "Don't nag the boy, Izzy," brought a wry smile to his flattened mouth as he accepted the truth of what his mother had said.
He'd loved this place as soon as he'd set his fascinated eyes on it as a seven-year-old when his parents had bought it as a holiday home. A former Moorish caravanserai, it lay in the heart of the tiny Andalucian town behind a stout studded door, the building arcaded around a flagged courtyard, which in summer was filled with the heady scents of roses, myrtle and lilies.
Since his father's retirement and health problems his parents had transferred the family home, Wakeham Lodge in Gloucestershire, to him and spent the summers here but left for their home on the coast when winter pressed down from the mountains, remaining there until after the Easter celebrations.
"There's nothing I'd like better than to stay on," he admitted as he straightened and took a straddle-legged position in front of the hearth, his wide shoulders lifting in a resigned shrug beneath the fine black cashmere that moulded his impressive torso. "But I have a problem."
"The business?" Lionel Masters put in sharply. He had retired three years ago, handing over the reins to his only son, but he still took a keen interest in the construction business he and his one-time partner Martin Rothwell had founded and brought to impressive success, now a world beater in Javier's more than capable hands.
"Nothing like that," he quickly put his father's mind at rest, adding drily, "Business problems I can handle. But this one goes by the name of Zoe Rothwell."
Two simultaneous expressive 'Aah!'s were followed by a silence so intense Javier could hear his heart beating. Heavily.
He glanced at the slim gold-banded watch he wore on his flat wrist. In roughly fifteen minutes Solita, the resident housekeeper, would announce that dinner was served. Best spell it out, get it over with.
"Yesterday, as I was leaving a meeting in Madrid I received a call from Alice Rothwell on my mobile. She sounded at the end of her tether and - to leave out the histrionics - it boils down to a blunt demand that I take over Zoe's guardianship because Alice can't and won't cope any longer."
"And?" Isabella Maria arched fine black brows and laid a dramatic hand on her silk-clad breast. "How could Alice think this is possible? I always thought she was a strange old woman - so cold and prim and proper - and now we add madness to the catalogue! Why should she think you can care for her little granddaughter? It would be different if you had a wife. But you do not."
Registering the latent disapproval in that last statement, Javier caught his father's grin and gave back a wry shrug. As an only child his confirmed bachelor-hood had been Isabella Maria's greatest anxiety since he had reached the age of twenty-five three years ago. His mother wanted grandchildren; there was the future generation to think of - well, wasn't there?
But Javier was nowhere near ready to tie himself down; he enjoyed his male freedom far too much. He worked damned hard so he was entitled to play hard. He enjoyed women, lovely, sophisticated creatures who shared his view that only an immature fool could mistake old-fashioned lust for love.
"Zoe can no longer be classed as a child," Javier pointed out at last, ignoring the barb about his wifeless state. "She's sixteen. The worst kind of bolshie teenager, according to her grandmother. Apparently, she is now flatly refusing to return to boarding-school, skulking around the house, playing loud music at all hours of the day and night, giving Alice a load of grief. Which she wants to hand over to me," he ended drily.
"Why you?" Lionel Masters regarded his son over steepled fingers. "You're already a corporate legend," he commented proudly. "A tough operator but fair, the original iron fist in a velvet glove. The responsibility of a tricky teenage girl wouldn't cause you to lose a second's worth of sleep, so I can see the way Alice's mind would be working. But there is no blood relationship, no family duty Alice Rothwell has a right to call on."
Javier's handsome mouth tightened. "There's a moral duty. Dating from when Zoe's father sold his share in the business to you and then died with her mother, Grace, in that house fire six weeks later," he reminded coolly. "Thankfully, Zoe was staying with a school friend and was spared, but that night she lost both her parents, her home, all the security an eight-year-old girl had ever known. I felt deeply sorry for both Alice and Zoe and I thought someone from our family should take an interest," he emphasised bluntly.
"Alice Rothwell's not the easiest woman to like." He spread his hands dismissively. "That aside, her husband had died the year before, she'd lost her son and was landed with a granddaughter she found impossible to handle. She is constitutionally lacking the warmth and sensitivity required for the care of a needy child. I knew that and made a point of keeping in touch over the years. So I guess you could say that Alice sees me as the likeliest person to take over."
Moral issues aside, ignoring the implication that she and Lionel should have offered practical help for an ex-business partner's orphaned child, Isabella Maria's mind was walking an entirely different path. "Zoe Rothwell was such a pretty child, as I remember. Such a happy little thing. She and her parents spent that Christmas with us at Wakeham Lodge. You remember, Lionel - you and her father spent most of the time finalising the details about buying him out of the business. Weeks later both her parents were dead, so there must be a mass of money sloshing about. Little Zoe might have turned into a handful but she must be worth a great deal. Surely that's right, Javier?"
Excerpted from A Spanish Marriage by Diana Hamilton Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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