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Chapter OnePilar Martinez stood quietly before her old boss, who frowned at her from behind his massive desk.
"Pilar," Hector Ruiz said, opening his short, pudgy hands toward her, "I know you will not want this assignment." He sighed, then sat a little straighter in his well-padded executive chair. "As your old friend, I asked you to come into Lima today to see me. To talk of this problem - together."
Pilar moved to the leather wing chair that Hector was gesturing for her to make herself comfortable in, her low-heeled shoes making no sound on the thick maroon carpeting. How long had it been? She mused as she sat, crossing her legs beneath the skirt of her pale pink business suit. Ten years ago, she had stood in this same office, a young woman whom everyone said belonged back in her native village with her family, not in the governmental halls of power.
Pilar studied her old friend and mentor. Hector had been like a father shadowing her life then, protective of her youth and naïvete
' as the daughter of the Spanish ambassador - a Castilian nobleman - and a Quechua Indian housemaid. Unlike most of Peruvian Society, Hector had held no prejudice against her as a mestiza. Instead, he had treated her with unfailing kindness despite her mixed-blood ancestry, and for that she would be forever grateful.
Now, she noted, perspiration shone on Hector's wrinkled brow. Though he was short and fat, Hector possessed a certain vanity about his appearance. He liked jewelry, and several heavy gold and diamond rings studded his stubby fingers. His suits were of the finest fabrics and craftmanship yet they managed to hang on him poorly despite every effort by his tailors to correct their fit. His shoulders were simply too round and slumped, no matter how much padding the tailors added. He looked a little as if he were wearing football pads, Pilar thought with a secret smile.
"It has been a long time," she agreed softly, smoothing her skirt's silk fabric across her thighs. She took the white leather purse from her shoulder and placed it in her lap, draping her fingers across it, as she smiled at Hector over the expanse of his desk. The huge mahogany piece dwarfed him, but Pilar knew that the rule in Peruvian business - and even more so here in the halls of the country's government - was that the importance of the person was related directly to the size of the office and the desk within it. As if for extra insurance, a gold pen set shone conspicuously from its place on the gleaming desk top. Behind Hector framed color photos of his family, ten in all, lined a shelf. Many diplomas and certificates of accomplishments adorned the rich mahogany walls, and the windows overlooking Lima provided an appropriately impressive backdrop, framed by wine damask drapes. Everything about Hector's office testified to his power.
"Too long," Hector agreed, then nodded at the approach of his secretary. "Ah, here is Manuela Gomez. She brings us good, rich coffee and some cookies."
Pilar turned slightly to see Hector's secretary, now in her fifties, enter the sumptuous office, a silver tray in her hands. Manuela was tall and thin, her black-and-gray hair drawn back severely into the chignon at the base of her neck that Pilar recalled from years ago. Ever conservative, she wore a dull gray business suit with tasteful pearl earrings and a simple choker of pearls. The secretary studiously avoided Pilar's steady gaze as she carefully placed the silver tray on Hector's desk.
"Thank you, Manuela," Hector said with a smile as he lifted his steaming cup. "Come, Pilar, have a taste. The finest coffee in Peru."
Hector seemed unaware of Manuela's cold, fleeting look as Pilar reached for the bone-china cup, but Pilar didn't miss the implied judgment in the other woman's eyes. Evidently the passing years hadn't softened Manuela's feelings about a mere mestiza being treated royally in her boss's office. The secretary made an about-face, much like a well-schooled military officer, and left as quietly as she had come. Forcing herself to shift focus, Pilar settled the saucer in her left palm and picked up the delicate cup, savoring the black coffee's fragrance. She took a small sip.
"There is nothing like a good cup of coffee," Hector said happily, reaching for a chocolate-covered cookie. "Here, Pilar, help yourself to some of these. You're as thin as a rail. I think you take after your mother."
She smiled a little at Hector's flattering reference to her beautiful mother, thankful again for his lack of disdain toward her heritage. Instead, Hector treated Pilar with the warmth and respect due any old friend. "Thank you, but I have just had lunch."
"So," Hector said with a sigh, leaning back against the tan leather behind him, "after your husband Fernando died, you are the manager of the finest Paso Fino breeding farm in Peru? I hear your horses take the blue ribbons no matter where you show them. That is quite a compliment to you as a trainer."
She bowed her head slightly. "Working with horses suits me well, Hector."
"It's your Incan blood," he said, waving the cookie expansively in the air. "You were always quiet and gentle - like a deer, I thought when we first met. I have heard at some of the embassy parties about your taming of that rogue stallion, El Diablo - and that you are the only one who can ride or handle him. He's earned quite a reputation in the horse circles. I was with the Sepulvedas the other night at a dinner for our president, and they were complaining loudly how you swept the championships, gathering all the major awards with that black devil."
"Perhaps the Sepulveda family, with their wonderful Paso Fino breeding stock, has gotten too used to winning everything?"
Excerpted from Morgan's Honor by Lindsay McKenna Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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