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Urubamba, Peru, January 21
Emilio Santana stared at the folder on the massive mahogany desk—the desk that had served the head of the Santana family for seven generations. Until two weeks ago that desk had belonged to his brother. Now it was his.
He was still reeling from Arturo's death in a highway accident. But the vast Santana business holdings couldn't wait for grief. Catapulted into place as the new jefe, Emilio had a world of things to learn—and barely enough time to learn them. He'd never wanted this responsibility. But now it was his—for life.
Arturo had always been the one who took care of things. While Emilio jetted around the world, partying with rock stars and dating glamorous women, Arturo had managed the family estate in Urubamba, the corporate offices in Lima and the portfolio of global investments and properties that comprised the Santana fortune. Steady and competent, Ar-turo had always been there to bail his wild younger brother out of trouble. Now he was gone, the reality of his loss still sinking in.
Since the funeral and the novena, Emilio had spent much of his time going through the files in Arturo's home office. Invoices, contracts, business correspondence. It was all a lot to take in, but he'd found nothing out of the ordinary.
The manila folder, marked "Personal," had been tucked into the back of the file drawer. Inside, Emilio found a certified envelope, addressed to Arturo and mailed from Tucson, Arizona, ten months earlier. Inside was a folded letter, printed on plain white paper and signed in a strong but feminine hand.
Dear Mr. Santana:
It saddens me to inform you that my stepsister, Cassidy Miller, passed away March 1 of this year, due to a brain tumor
Cassidy dead? But how could that be? Emilio stared at the page in disbelief. Cassidy had been so beautiful, so full of life and mischief. A model with a reputation as a party girl, Cassidy Miller had been doing a fashion shoot in Cusco when Emilio had met her. After the shoot he'd invited her and several model friends to spend a few days at the Urubamba estate. One look at Arturo, and she'd cancelled an upcoming assignment to stay with him. During the five weeks they'd spent together, Emilio's brother had never looked happier. Then Cassidy had vanished from his life. Emilio had wondered why, but if Arturo had known, he'd never said a word.
Biting back emotion Emilio read on.
I know this news will come as a shock. Cassidy begged me not to tell you about her illness. But now that she's gone I feel duty-bound to write to you for another reason. In the last days of her life, Cassidy gave birth to a baby boy. Since he was born February 26, nine months from the time she was with you in Peru, I have every reason to believe he's your son.
Rest assured that I'm not writing to make any claim on your wealth or your estate. In fact, if you agree, I would like to raise the boy myself. Little Zac, as Cassidy named him, will be well cared for here with me. I've brought him home and would love to raise him as my own. My lawyer has advised me to inform you of his birth and ask your permission before taking steps to adopt him.
My business card is enclosed. If I don't hear from you, I'll assume you have no interest in the boy and proceed with the adoption. Si ncerely, Grace Chandler
Emilio reread the letter. His numbness ebbed as the news sank home. Cassidy was gone forever. But Arturo had left a son—a son he'd kept secret. Why?
Looking for answers, Emilio unfolded a second sheet of paper—this one a photocopy of Arturo's reply.
Dear Miss Chandler:
My condolences on your loss. You may adopt the boy on condition that he have no future contact with the Santana family, nor any legal claim to the Santana estate. I plan to be married soon and start a family of my own. The appearance of an illegitimate son would cause pain and embarrassment, which I wish to avoid at all cost.
If I can trust you to understand my position and honor my wishes, I will leave this matter entirely in your hands. Yours truly,
Arturo Rafael Santana y Morales
Emilio studied the letter. The language sounded brusque, even cold. But Arturo himself had often sounded cold and closed-off after Cassidy left. And even before she came into his life, he had always put family interests ahead of personal feelings. At the time when he'd written the letter, he'd become engaged to Mercedes Villanueva, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. The wedding had never taken place, but Emilio could understand Arturo's not wanting an illegitimate offspring to interfere.
Illegitimate. Such an ugly word for an innocent child. Turning, he gazed out the window, which commanded a view of the Santana estate. Situated in the lush Sacred Valley of the Incas, the land had been in his family since the 1600s when Spanish conquistador Miguel Santana had acquired it as a royal grant. Santana had married an Inca princess and settled into the life of a country gentleman. The land reforms of the 1960s had trimmed away most of the original grant, but the heart of the estate remained, as did the well-managed Santana fortune.
The Santanas themselves hadn't fared so well. Emilio's firstborn brother had died of a childhood illness. Now that Arturo was gone, Emilio was the only remaining Santana male. Unless he married and sired an heir—a prospect that loomed like a prison sentence—the family holdings could be fated for seizure by the government or split among his distant kin.
Emilio reread both letters. Arturo had never wanted to father a child out of wedlock. The impulsive Cassidy must have caught him off guard, without protection. But what mattered now was that Arturo had left a son—a boy who, by now, would be almost a year old.
Legitimate or not, there was no way Emilio would turn his back on his own flesh and blood. Especially when that child could be the key to carrying on the Santana legacy. Maybe this Grace Chandler person would be amenable to some kind of arrangement. If not, he had the means to exercise his family's legal rights.
Writing or calling would only complicate matters. He would leave for Arizona tomorrow.
"How about some lunch, big boy?" Grace lifted Zac out of the jogging stroller and carried him into the house. At eleven months, he was getting heavy. Soon he'd be walking. Then she'd really have her hands full.
Buckling him into his high chair she washed his hands, gave him some finger food and kept an eye on him as he fed himself. Cassidy's son was a beautiful child, with ebony curls and heart-melting brown eyes. His coloring would have come from his Peruvian father. But when Grace looked at the little boy, it was Cassidy she saw looking back at her.
Ever since she had found out that Cassidy was pregnant—and that it was unlikely she would live to raise her son her-self—it had been Grace's plan to adopt her stepsister's baby. The paperwork had taken months, but now the wait was almost over. In a few weeks she would finalize the process that would make Zac her legal son—the only child she could ever have.
Splat! A chunk of cooked, mashed carrot hit her cheek and stuck there. Zac grinned and giggled, showing his new baby teeth. Throwing food was his newest discovery, and he was good at it.
"That's quite an arm you've got, mister. We should think about baseball later on." Laughing, she boosted him out of the chair and untied his bib. "Time to wash up. Let's go."
Zac had managed to get as much lunch on his face and hands as in his mouth. As she passed the hallway mirror, Grace caught a glimpse of herself with the baby in her arms. The two of them looked like they'd been in a food fight. In the few seconds it had taken her to cross the small kitchen, he'd smeared the front of her white T-shirt and coated a lock of her hair. Between her morning run and Zac's meal, she was a sweaty, sticky mess. As soon as the little mischief-maker was down for his nap, she'd be ready for a shower.
Grace had just stepped into the bathroom with the baby when the front doorbell rang.
Talk about timing It was most likely a delivery or a salesperson. Maybe if she didn't answer, the caller would give up and leave.
But the bell rang again, more insistently this time. With a sigh of surrender, Grace switched the baby to her left hip, strode to the front door and opened it.
The tall, dark man on the porch was a stranger. But Grace recognized him from his photos in the supermarket tabloids, usually with some actress or model draped on his arm. The Peruvian Playboy, one scandal sheet had dubbed him.
Arturo Santana's brother wouldn't just drop by to say hello. Grace's stomach knotted as she met his piercing eyes. Emilio Santana, she sensed, had come here for a reason. And that reason must have something to do with Zac.
Clasping the baby, Grace braced herself for trouble.
Emilio's gaze took in the woman and child. She was athletically built, her long, tanned legs stretching from white running shoes to black nylon shorts. Strings of dark blond hair had escaped from her sweatband to dangle around her carrot-smudged face. Wide hazel eyes—her most striking feature—blazed defiance. With her golden coloring and challenging manner, she reminded him of a lioness defending her cub.
As for the baby Something jerked around Emilio's heart as he studied the boy. The dark Latino coloring was like his own family's, but he could see traces of Cassidy, as well. Dirty face and all, the child was perfection.
So this was Arturo's son.
He found his voice. "Grace Chandler? My name is Emilio Santana."
"I know who you are." Her arms tightened around the baby. "My question is, what are you doing here?"
"This may take some time. May I come in?"
"Of course." Despite the courteous words, she was visibly bristling with distrust as she stepped aside for him to enter. The house was small but tastefully furnished and well kept. Emilio saw no sign of a man about the place, and the woman wasn't wearing a ring. Good—that would make things simpler.
"Please sit down," she said, nodding toward a leather armchair. "When you rang the doorbell, I was about to clean up this baby and change him. If you'll excuse me—"
"Take your time. I can wait."
As she headed down the hall, Emilio settled back in the chair. He was grateful for the chance to compose his thoughts. The impact of seeing his brother's son had staggered him. He was still grappling with his emotions. But one thing was already certain. Young Zac was his last link to Arturo and the heir to the Santana name. The boy was Emilio's insurance that, whether he married or not, the family legacy would continue. He would not be going back to Peru without him.
As for the boy's aunt He'd managed some online research during his private flight from Lima. Grace Chandler, he'd learned, was an accomplished children's book illustrator. The website he'd found hadn't included a photo, so her chiseled, blonde good looks had come as a pleasant surprise—especially those long, golden legs
But he would tuck that thought away for a more suitable time.
He surveyed the small room—the colorful cushions, the shelves filled with books, the thriving green plants in handmade pots and the guitar propped in one corner. Everything looked comfortable and well cared for, though certainly a far cry from the luxury he was accustomed to.
His wandering gaze found a photograph on a low shelf. It showed Cassidy, leaning over an iron railing with the sky behind her. Her emerald eyes were dancing, her rich auburn hair fluttering in the wind. His throat tightened. How could anyone so full of life be gone?
Those weeks that she'd stayed in their home she'd seemed in perfect health. But now Emilio remembered the headaches that had plagued her every few days. Had Cassidy known, even then, that she was dying?
Was it possible that she'd set out to get pregnant with Ar-turo's child?
Emilio burned with questions—and his only hope of answers lay with Grace Chandler.
Grace's hands shook as she taped Zac's diaper in place and fastened the clean blue onesie between his plump little legs. At least now he'd look presentable for dared she even think the word? His uncle?
How could this have happened? After Arturo's letter, she'd believed it was safe to go ahead with the adoption. She'd started making a lifetime of plans for her stepsister's son. Now a dark-eyed stranger who'd appeared out of nowhere could change everything. Had Arturo sent him, or had Emilio Santana come on his own?
More important, what did he want?
Settling Zac in the safety of his crib, she pulled off her soiled shirt and replaced it with a clean, black V-necked top. That done, she yanked off her terry cloth sweatband, splashed her face clean and gave her shoulder-length hair a few licks with the brush—after rinsing away the traces of carrot mush. Even as she tidied up, she knew her appearance didn't matter. She wasn't the one her visitor had come to see. Her instincts told her that Emilio Santana had come for Zac.
And she meant to fight him with everything she had.
He rose as she returned to the living room with Zac in her arms. In faded jeans, an open-necked white shirt and casual black jacket he looked as elegant as a movie hero. It occurred to Grace that she could've taken the baby, crept out the back door and driven away in her car. But she knew it wouldn't have made any difference. A man like Emilio Santana would have the means to track her down anywhere.
"Will he come to me?"
"He's not used to strangers. Sit down. I'll give him a chance to check you out." Grace lowered herself to the ottoman and put Zac on the rug. "Sorry I don't have a drink to offer you, Mr. Santana—unless you'd settle for iced tea. I wasn't expecting company."
"Please call me Emilio. And don't worry about the tea." He took his seat. His English was flawless, his accented voice deep and rich. If she'd closed her eyes, Grace might have pictured Antonio Banderas. But this unsettling man was even better-looking.
Zac had decided to investigate the visitor. He was crawling on all fours toward the chair where Emilio sat. Grace resisted the urge to reach out and pull him back. She'd been present at Zac's birth and first held him when he was only minutes old. She had loved him from the moment Cassidy told her she had a baby on the way. If this presumptuous man thought she was just going to hand over her child and walk away.
"What's his full name?" Emilio was studying the baby. "Izac? Zachary?"
"It's plain Zac—Cassidy's choice. Zac Miller, legally, although I plan to change the last name to my own when the adoption becomes final." Grace emphasized the word when.
"I understand you're no blood relation to the boy."
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