Paying for the past
Lady Elizabeth Fane has two choices: lose her family's Scottish stud farm or swallow her pride and beg Chico Fernandez for help. She's never forgiven the arrogant Brazilian polo star for abandoning her years before, so instead she will collect on the debt he owes her.
Yet in the sultry Brazilian heat passions flare, revealing feelings Lizzie thought she had long conquered. That is until Chico finally reveals the truth behind his desertion and Lizzie realizes that he not only has power over her body but it's she who is in the Brazilian's debt!
About the Author
Susan Stephens is passionate about writing books set in fabulous locations where an outstanding man comes to grips with a cool, feisty woman. Susan’s hobbies include travel, reading, theatre, long walks, playing the piano, and she loves hearing from readers at her website. www.susanstephens.com
Read an Excerpt
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
Lizzie thought about her father's words as the transport plane lost height, bringing them closer to their destination. Determination was an admirable quality, her father had insisted with his usual bluff confidence, founded on nothing more than one of his hunches and the dregs from a bottle of Scotch. His Lizzie wasn't short of determination. She would rebuild the family pride where he had failed.
How many other apparently confident people put on an act in order to reassure others? Lizzie wondered as she peered out of the small, grainy window. She had been planning to embark on this advanced training programme with horses in Brazil for years, and just hoped she wasn't shooting too high. She was determined to set the family business back on its feet, but flying for hours over miles of uninhabited nothingness in Brazil had thrown her. She felt so far away from home, and seeing Chico Fernandez again after all these years was going to dent her confidence even more.
'How come you're not nervous?' Lizzie's friend and fellow groom Danny Cameron demanded, clutching on tightly to Lizzie's hand as the plane dropped like a stone.
She put on one hell of an act? She wasn't a great traveller, and probably felt the same fear as Danny. As the ground came up to meet them like a slap in the face, her stomach roiled. The distinctly unglamorous transporter, known as the Carrier Pigeon to the staff of Fazenda Fernandez, appeared to dive-bomb its target, which was a rambling ranch in the middle of the pampas in Brazil.
'We'll be fine,' she soothed Danny, hoping for the best.
Would they make it?
Would she make it, more to the point? Never mind that the runway was short, and the plane was loaded down with horses, grooms, and equipment, all heading to the world-class training ranch of the infamous hard man of polo, Chico Fernandez. She might make it to the ground safely, but would she make it safely out of here with both her heart and her reputation intact? It seemed incredible now that Chico had once meant so much to her, but she'd been fifteen the last time she'd seen him in person, when, for one glorious summer, Chico had been her closest friend and confidant, until her parents started referring to him in the same tone people reserved for the devil.
Chico Fernandez was supposedly the Fane family's nemesis, yet here she was, to suck him dry of all his equine knowledge, according to her father, before returning home to restore the horse-training business that, again, according to her father, Chico Fernandez had destroyed. She knew now her father's bluster covered for his faults, and had learned to make up her own mind where his many, dramatic pronouncements were concerned. The college that had awarded her this scholarship to train with Chico Fernandez was spending good money on the course, as were all the other students. She guessed they, like her, also hoped to 'suck the famous polo player dry' of everything Chico could teach them.
Any thoughts her father might have had about this being a wonderful opportunity for Lizzie to get back at a man he considered his enemy were so far off the mark as to be ludicrous. But she'd listened patiently, as she always did when her father was on one of his rambles, as he assured her that this trip was simple justice, because Chico had stolen everything from him: his good name, his business, his wealth and success, and his horses. 'Chico took everything from meeverything, Lizzieeven your mother! Never forget that.'
How could she forget her father's impassioned speech, when he constantly reminded her that thanks to Chico he had been reduced to a drunken husk, while her mother had left him to go and live in the South of France with the latest in a long line of much younger men?
But not before her mother had been seduced by Chico? The rumours put about by her parents were even worse. They said Chico had forced her mother to have sex with him. Lizzie couldn't equate that with the man she'd known, though her mother, whom Lizzie had been made to call Serena, had done everything she could to destroy Lizzie's friendship with Chico, saying he was just a poor boy from the slums of Brazil, while her daughter was Lady Elizabeth Fane.
Lizzie had thought herself in love with Chico, and had cared nothing for her so-called status. She still cared nothing for it, but she was no longer a gullible adolescent and could see her parents' faults. Whatever her father said, Lizzie doubted Chico was to blame for her family's descent into ruin. In fact, her grandmother, who had taken over Lizzie's care when her parents lost interest, had confirmed this, saying Lizzie's parents hadn't needed any help where ruining the family was concerned.
What had hurt Lizzie the most was that Chico had promised to take her away from a home life that had frightened her, before her grandmother had moved back in, mainly because her parents had held parties where everyone got drunk and did things behind locked doors that Lizzie could only guess. She hadn't shared these suspicions with Chico, just her unease, though she had told him how much she hated living at home. As a youth looking for a cause, Chico hadn't demanded too much of an explanation, but had promised to rescue her, only to return to Brazil without even saying goodbye.
It was hard to reconcile the friendship they'd shared with the way she felt about him now. She had trusted Chico completely and had never got over what she'd seen as his betrayal. They had shared so many adventures on horseback, and had got to the point of exchanging silly gifts, though Chico's mentor, the Brazilian polo player, Eduardo Delgardo, had made sure their friendship never went any further than that.
The only way to deal with her mixed feelings for Chico, Lizzie decided, was to concentrate on the one thing that mattered, which was his magical way with horses. This gift had made him her hero when she was fifteen years old, and if she could pick up everything Chico could teach her here on his world-famous training course it could be the key to rebuilding the family business. She was looking forward to showing him how much she'd changed, from an impressionable teenager into an individual who was every bit as driven and as determined as he was, and, though it would be tough seeing him every day, failure wasn't an option when the people of Rottingdean were depending on her to get this right.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Danny yelped as the plane landed.
There was no going back now.
As she looked outside her confidence took another knock. Everything was so much bigger and wilder than she had imagined, and potentially more dangerous.
The ground was parched. The sun was blazing down. According to the weather forecast, the humidity outside the aircraft would be high. The horses would be restless after such a long confinement. They would need firm and sensitive handling by their grooms, which was where Lizzie excelled. Horses were her life, and seemed to sense how deeply she cared for them. Her presence alone was usually enough to reassure them. Unbuckling her seat belt, she was out of her seat before the pilot had turned off the engines.
Lizzie remained with the most fractious horse until the back of the plane had been opened and sunlight streamed in as the ramp was lowered into placeand the sound of a husky male voice, so familiar, so long in the past, issuing terse commands in Portuguese, froze her to the spot.
'Quem é que na parte de trás congeladas em pedra? Tremos trabalho a fazer!'
It stunned her to hear that voice again, though it had gained an edge of command. Chico was used to instant compliance, she gathered. He must expect it. He was so successful. For Lizzie it was a nostalgic reminder of the past, and for a moment she thought herself back at Rottingdean in the shade and the quietness of the stables, a fifteen-year-old girl, hanging on every word he said
Danny was shaking her arm, Lizzie realised, because, thanks to thinking about Chico, she had become the one fixed point in what was now a hive of activity. 'What did he say?'
Danny had a better command of Portuguese than she did, and lost no time translating for her. '"Who's that at the back of the plane, frozen into stone? We have work to do!"' 'Lizzie!' Danny muttered urgently. 'That's you!'
'Oh' Red-cheeked, Lizzie stared around, but there was no sign of Chico.
He never had been the type to hang around, she remembered as she caught a glimpse of a big male figure, dressed in dark, form-fitting clothes, ducking into a high-powered Jeep. He was so much bigger than she remembered, and his body language had changed. Instead of the easy stride she remembered, everything about him was commanding and certain
Well, he would be changed. Twelve long years had passed since the last time she'd seen Chico, though even as he drove away at speed now that brief glimpse of him was enough to make her heart race. Which was not the best of starts, if she was going to complete this course successfully. And she was not going home without a result. She would not be taken in a second time by Chico's seductive charm. She would focus on the horses, and make a strong business plan before returning to Scotland to make a name for herself.
Staring up into the solemn brown eyes of the horse she was caring for, she was relieved to see his ears pricked with interest, rather than laid back with fright. If only she could soothe herself the same way.
'Come on, handsome,' she coaxed. 'It's time for you and me to test the air of Brazil.'
He was content. He was back on his vast fazenda in Brazil, which was the most cherished part of his worldwide equine empire. Control and order ruled throughout. His control. His rule. Horses loved order and certainty, and he loved horses, so the smooth running of this ranch was non-negotiable.
'New recruits, Maria,' he snapped out crisply.
Crossing the wooden floor of his pristine office, his elderly secretary handed him a sheet of paper listing the new students.
He exchanged warm glances with Maria, who was the only woman in the world he trusted. Maria had been with him from the start. They adored each other. It was more a mother and son relationship than that of employer, employee. Maria had occupied a neighbouring shed in the barrio, the violent slum where they had both started out, where someone was murdered on average every twenty minutes. Maria's son, Felipe, and Chico's brother, Augusto, had been in the same gang, and had been shot dead in front of Chico in the same brutal incident. Chico had been ten years old at the time with a father in prison and a mother on the game. He had vowed to look after Maria, as he had vowed to bring justice and education to the barrio. He'd done both.
'So,' he mused, scouring the list. 'These brave few have come to study at Fazenda Fernandez so they can leave with a diploma stating they have survived and thrived beneath the riding boot of the acknowledged master of the equine world?' He exchanged an amused glance with Maria. 'And still they come, Maria.'
'Thanks to you, Chico,' Maria insisted. 'Because you are the best.' Maria's characterful mouth pressed down as she shrugged expansively. 'The best want to study with the best.'
He laughed. 'So, who have we got here?' His gaze stalled on one name. Thank God Maria hadn't noticed his reaction. Explanations would have spoiled her day. Seeing the name Fane and that distinctive address had spoiled his day. He had thought he was done with that family.
'There were more applicants than ever this year, Chico.'
He didn't want to upset Maria when she was in full flow. Maria was proud of him. She treated him like the son she had lost, and in return he loved Maria and protected her in every way he could. He would not upset her now, so a short hum was his only response to her rapid-fire résumé of each of the new students.
'And this one's from the barrio, Chico'
'Good,' he murmured, still debating what to do with one particular student on the list. As for the barrio, that was an ongoing project and very close to his heart. It was a battle he'd never win, some said, but he refused to accept that. To be the best he could be was his personal goal; to help young people from all backgrounds was his mission in life.
'And we have a member of the British aristocracy with us this year'
This he already knew. And he was a whole lot less impressed about that fact than Maria.
'No wonder,' Maria enthused. She was brandishing an official-looking document at him. 'Fazenda Fernandez is up for yet another award this year. We are even famous in Scotland where this aristocratic young lady comes from.'
'Really? That's good, Maria.'
He made a point of standing next to Maria as he read the letter over her shoulder to assure her of his interest. The letter confirmed that Lizzie Fane was a member of that year's new student intake. He smiled at first, remembering how Lizzie had teased him about his broken English, and how she'd patiently taught him, and how he'd loved those lessons. He had loved watching her mouth form the words more than the words themselves. It was a surprise he'd learned anything new, but Lizzie had assured him that he was her best student.
Her only student, he thought now, his hackles rising when he thought back to her parents, who hadn't liked Lizzie to have any friendsin case they talked about what they saw at Rottingdean House, he had presumed at the time. They couldn't get rid of him, because he was with Eduardo, but they had targeted Chico, levelling the most terrible accusations against him in the hope of getting Eduardo to buy them off.
At the time he was angry with Eduardo and Lizzie's grandmother for spiriting him away before he'd had chance to clear his name, but now he realised they had saved him from going head to head with the establishment, which, back then, was a battle he could never have won. The only thing he didn't understand about that time was why Lizzie hadn't stepped forward to defend him. He had thought they were friends, but blood was thicker than water, it turned out, and she had chosen her lying, cheating family over him.
And now Lizzie was here on his ranch, hoping to benefit from his teaching? It was so incredible it was almost funny, but he wasn't in the mood for laughing.
'My success is thanks to you, Maria, and to the wonderful staff you have gathered around you,' he said, determined to look forward, not back.
Maria turned to give him a glowing smile. 'And to you, Chico,' she insisted proudly. 'Without you none of us would be working in this world-class facility.'