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The gray, lowering sky was falling like a shroud across the old colonial city of San Miguel de Allende when I heard the words I'd feared in nightmares for the past year.
"A man was here looking for you, Señora Lena."
Looking up at my neighbor, I staggered back, clutching my five-month-old son in my arms. "What?"
The woman smiled, reaching out to chuck the cooing baby's pudgy chin. "Gracias for letting me watch Miguelito for an hour. Such a pleasure "
"But the man?" I croaked, my mouth dry. "What did he look like?"
"Muy guapo," she sighed. "So handsome. Dark-haired and tall."
It could be anyone, I told myself desperately. The old silver mining town in central Mexico was filled with American expatriates who'd moved here to enjoy the lovely architecture and take classes at the famous Instituto. Many single women had come here to start new lives, pursuing new businesses as artists and sculptors and jewelry makers.
Like me. A year ago, I'd arrived pregnant and full of grief, but I'd still managed to start a wonderful new life. Perhaps this dark stranger was looking for a portrait of his sweetheart, nothing more.
But I didn't believe it. Fear was cold inside me. "Did he give his name?"
Dolores shook her head. "The baby was fussing in my arms when I answered the door. But the man was well dressed, with a Rolls-Royce. A chauffeur. Bodyguards, even." Her smile spread to a grin. "Do you have a rich new boyfriend, Lena?"
My knees went weak.
"No," I whispered.
It could be only one man. Alejandro Guillermo Valentín Navaro y Albra, the powerful Duke of Alzacar. The man I'd once loved with all my innocent heart. The man who'd seduced and betrayed me.
No. It was worse than that.
"He's not your boyfriend, eh?" My neighbor's voice was regretful. "Pity. Such a handsome man. Why did he come looking for you, then? Do you know him?"
Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. "When was he here?"
She shrugged, looking bemused. "A half hour ago. Maybe more."
"Did you say anything aboutabout Miguel being my son?"
Dolores shook her head. "He didn't give me the chance. He just asked if you lived in the house two doors down. I said yes. He pulled out his wallet and asked me not to mention his visit, because he wanted to surprise you. Can you imagine?" She flourished some bills from her apron pocket in delight. "He paid me a thousand pesos for my silence!"
Yes. I could imagine. I briefly closed my eyes. "But you told me anyway," I whispered. "Bless you."
She snorted. "Men always want to arrive with a flourish of trumpets. I thought it better for you to be prepared." She looked at my shapeless white sundress and plain sandals with a moue of disapproval, then at my long, casual pony-tail and makeup-free face. She sighed. "You have a good figure, but in that dress you look like a marshmallow. You don't make the most of yourself. It's almost like you don't want to be noticed!" She shook her head. "But tonight you must be at your most irresistible, your most sexy, sí? You want him to want you!"
No. I really didn't. Not that he would want me anyway, now his evil plan had succeeded. "He's not my boyfriend."
"So picky!" She made a tsk sound. "You don't want this billionaire, you don't want that oneI tell you, wealthy, handsome men are not so thick upon the ground as you seem to think!" Dolores glared at me. "Your son needs a father. You need a husband. Both of you deserve every happiness." Her expression turned suddenly sly. "And the man at my door looked like he would bring a lot of happiness to a wife. Every night."
"No doubt," I said over the razor blade in my throat. It was true. Alejandro had brought me intense joy for one summer. And a lifetime's worth of anguish since. "I should go."
"Sí. It's almost Miguel's nap time, isn't it, pequeño?'" she crooned.
My baby yawned, his fat cheeks vying with his sleepy dark eyes for cuteness. Those eyes just like his father's.
I exhaled, running a hand over my forehead. I'd allowed myself to think we were safe. That Alejandro had given up looking for me. I should have known. I should have known better than to start sleeping at night, to start making friends, to start making a real home for myself and my son. I should have known they would someday find me .
"Lena?" My neighbor frowned. "Is something wrong? You do not seem happy."
"Did you tell him when I'd be back?"
"I wasn't sure when you'd be done, so to be safe I said four o'clock."
I glanced at the clock in her brightly painted front room. It was only three. I had one hour. "Thank you." In a burst of emotion, I hugged her, knowing that she'd been kind to meto both of usbut I would never see her again after today. "Gracias, Dolores."
She patted my back. "I know you've had a hard year, but that's in the past. Your life is about to change for the better. I can always feel these things."
Better? I choked back a laugh, then turned away before she could see my face. "Adios ."
"He'll be your boyfriend, just wait and see," she called after me gleefully. "He'll be your husband someday!"
My husband. A bitter thought. I wasn't the one Alejandro had wished to marry. He wanted my wealthy, beautiful cousin, Claudie. It was the whole reason he'd seduced me, the poor relation living in the shadows of Claudie's London mansion. If he and Claudie wed, together they'd have everything: a dukedom, half of Andalucía, political connections across the world, billions in the bank. They'd have almost limitless power.
There was just one thing they could never have.
My eyes fell on my baby's dark, downy head. I clutched Miguel tightly against me, and he gave an indignant cry. Loosening my grip, I smoothed back his soft hair.
"Sorry, I'm so sorry," I choked out, and I didn't know whether I was begging my son's forgiveness for holding him too tightly, for tearing him away from his home or for choosing his father so poorly.
How could I have been so stupid? How?
Hurrying down the small street, I glanced up at the heavy gray sky. August was the rainy season, and a downpour was threatening. Cuddling Miguel against my hip, I punched in the securityalarm code and pushed open the heavy oak door of my brightly painted home.
The rooms inside were dark. I'd fallen in love with this old colonial house, with its tall ceilings, its privacy, its scarcity of windows on the street. I could not have afforded the rent in a million years, but I'd been helped by a friend who'd allowed me to live here rent-free. WellI thought of Edward St. Cyr as a friend. Until a week ago, when he'd
But no. I wouldn't think of that now, or how betrayed I'd felt when the friendship I'd come to rely upon had been revealed for what it was.
I'm tired of waiting for you to forget that Spanish bastard. It's time for you to belong to me.
I shuddered at the memory. My answer had sent Edward scowling from this house, back on his private jet to London. There was no way I could remain in this house, living rent-free, after that, so for the past week, I'd looked for a cheaper place to live. But it was hard to find any place cheap enough for the income of a new, self-employed artist. Even here.
San Miguel de Allende had become my home. I would miss the city's cobblestoned streets, growing flowers in my garden and selling portraits in the open-air mercados. I'd miss the friends I'd made, Mexicans and expats who'd welcomed an unmarried, heartbroken woman and her baby, who'd taped me up and put me back together.
Now I took a deep breath, trying to steady my shaking nerves. "I can do this," I whispered aloud, trying to make myself believe it. I knew how to grab passports, money and clothes and be out of here in five minutes. I'd done it before, in Tokyo, Berlin, Istanbul, Sao Paulo and Mumbai.
But then, I'd had Edward to help me. Now I had no one.
Don't think about it, I ordered myself, wiping my eyes. I'd go on foot and hail a taxi on the street. Once at the station, my baby and I would take the next bus to Mexico City. I'd use the emergency credit card Edward had left and fly to the United States, where I was born. I'd head west. Disappear. Once I found a job, I'd pay back Edward every penny.
I'd raise my child in peace, in some small town in Arizona or Alaska, and this time, I'd make sure Alejandro would never, ever find me .
A lamp flicked on in the foyer.
Alejandro was sitting in a chair across the room, staring at me with eyes that burned like fire.
I halted, choking out a gasp.
"Lena Carlisle," he said in a low voice. "At last."
"Alejandro," I breathed as terror racked through me. My hands instinctively tightened on my baby in my arms. "What are you How did you "
"How did I find you?" He rose to his feet, tall and broad-shouldered. "Or how did I get in to your house?" His voice was low and husky, with only the slightest accent, blurred from growing up in Spain, followed by years of running a billion-dollar business conglomerate from New York and London. "Do you really think any security system, no matter how expensive, could keep me from being where I wanted to be?"
He was even more handsome than I remembered. Seeing him in the flesh, after a year of being tormented by sensual dreams, made my knees tremble. I clutched Miguel closer, willing myself not to faint.
Alejandro's cold eyes never left mine as he walked toward me. He was dressed in black from his well-cut coat to his glossy Italian shoes, draped in power.
"What do you want?" I choked out.
He looked from me to my yawning, drowsy-eyed baby.
"Is it true?" His voice was deadly quiet, but the words burned through my heart. His face was grim. "Is this my baby?"
His baby. Oh, God. Please, no. I stumbled back in blind panic.
"My men are outside. You won't even make it to the street ."
I ignored him. Grabbing the wrought-iron handle, I pulled open the heavy, weathered oak door and started to run. I stopped.
Six hulking bodyguards stood outside my house, in a semicircle, in front of the expensive sedan and black SUV now jamming the slender residential lane.
"Did you think," Alejandro said softly behind me, "that when I finally found you, I would leave anything to chance?"
He stood close behind me, so close I caught the scent of his cologne. So close I could feel the heat emanating from his powerful body. Briefly closing my eyes, I shivered at being so close to the man who had once possessed me, body and soul.
Unwillingly, I turned back to face the ghost who still haunted my heart. His hot black gaze held mine, and in the dark embers of that fire, I was lashed by memories I'd tried so hard to forget. I'd loved him hopelessly from the moment he'd first come to call on my beautiful, wealthy cousin. I'd watched from hallways, made them tea, organized their dinner parties. I'd done it all with a smile, any and all work my cousin required, ignoring the ache of my heart when she bragged after he left that she was going to catch the uncatchable Spanish duke. "He's nearly in my grasp!" Claudie had crowed. "I'll be a duchess before the year is out!"
Then, to everyone's shock, he'd suddenly jilted her. For me.
He was the first man who'd ever noticed mereally noticed meand I'd fallen like a stone beneath the sensual onslaught of his power and glamour and dangerous, sexy charm. For six reckless, miraculous weeks in London last summer, Alejandro had held me in his arms, and I felt as if I owned the world.
Memories of the hopes I'd had, the naive girl I'd been, ripped through me now like a torrent of blows. Alejandro's expression was stark, but I could remember his playful smile. The intensity of his dark gaze. The sound of his husky voice whispering sweet words in the night. I could remember hot kisses, and the feel of our naked bodies intertwined in his London hotel suite. In the back of his limo. And once, against the wall in the back stairs of the Carlisle mansion.
Our affair had seemed as infinite as the stars in the sky. But on that bright summer day when I finally gathered the courage to tell him I was in love with him, his smiling face had changed in front of my eyes.
"Love me?" Alejandro had repeated scornfully. "You do not even know me."
Two minutes later, he was gone, leaving me bereft and bewildered. But the broken, truly broken, came later.
Now, Alejandro took my hand, glancing up and down the quiet Mexican street.
"Come back inside, Lena. We have much to talk about."
Feeling the electricity of his hand wrapped around mine, I looked up with an intake of breath.
He was so close now. Touching me. My lips parted. He was somehow even more devastatingly handsome than I'd remembered. He had the kind of face that could break a woman's heart into a million pieces, to little shimmering fragments of gray dust, leaving you too dazed with his power and beauty to feel anything but gratitude as he lazily destroyed you.
Without my notice, he led me back into the foyer. Reaching over my head, he towered over me, his arm brushing against my hair, his body pressing against mine. I shivered, clutching my baby close. But he merely closed the heavy door with a sonorous bang behind me.
The hard-edged billionaire duke, in his sharply tailored clothes, stood out starkly against my comfortable, bohemian home, with its warm tile floors and walls I'd decorated with homemade paper flowers and my own paintings, one of the Parroquia de San Miguel, but the rest of my baby, the first from when he was just six days old.
Looking down at me, Alejandro said softly, "Is what Claudie told me true? This baby in your armsit is mine?"
Trembling, I pulled away. Gathering my wits, I glared at him. "Do you really expect me to answer that?"
"It's an easy enough question. There are only two possible answers." Reaching out, he stroked my cheek, but there was no tenderness in his gaze. "Yes. Or no."
"You'd be a horrible father! I won't let my sweet boy be turned into a heartless bastard like"
"Like me?" His voice was dangerously low. His dark eyes gleamed in the shadowy foyer. "Is that what you really think of meafter all we once shared?"
Caught in his gaze, I trembled. Once, I might have believed so differently. I'd managed to convince myself that beneath his wealth and power and aristocratic title, Alejandro was decent and good. Like generations of women before me, I had seen what I wanted to see. I'd been blind to the truth, until, against my will, the blindfold had been torn from my eyes.
"Yes. That's what I think of you."
A strange expression flickered across the chiseled planes of his face, an emotion I couldn't identify before it swiftly disappeared. He gave me a sardonic smile.
"You are right, of course. I care for nothing and no one. Least of all you, especially after you and your cousin have gone to such lengths to blackmail me over this child."
"Blackmail you?" I gasped. "You're the one who deliberately seduced me, and got me pregnant, intending to steal my baby away so you could raise him with Claudie!"
He grew very still.
"What are you talking about?" he ground out.