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Leandro Carrera Marquez, Duque de Sandoval, awoke when his valet opened the bedroom curtains and bid his illustrious employer a cheerful good morning. His lean, darkly handsome face grim, Leandro doubted that the day ahead would be the slightest bit different from any other day in recent months. Fresh towels were laid out in the bathroom for his shower. A custom-made designer business suit and a mono-grammed silk shirt and toning tie were assembled in readiness for his getting dressed.
Elegant and, as always, immaculate in appearance, Leandro finally descended the magnificent staircase of the family castillo with all the cool assurance and dignity of his grand forebears. He knew that he was bored and he scorned the feeling, well aware that he was bountifully blessed with health, wealth and success. The walls he passed bore the portraits of his predecessorsthe very flower of proud Castilian aristocracyranging from the first duke, who had been a famous soldier and a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, to Leandro's father, a distinguished banker who had died when his son was barely five years old.
'Your Excellency.' Having been greeted by Basilio, his majordomo, and two maidservants at the foot of the stairs with much the same pomp and ceremony that the first duque would have received in the fifteenth century, Leandro was ushered into breakfast where the day's papers, including the leading financial publications, awaited him. There was no need for him to ask for anything. His every need and wish were carefully foreseen by his devoted staff and perfect peace reigned while he ate, for his preference for silence at the breakfast table was well known.
A phone was brought to him. His mother, the dowager Duquesa, Doña Maria, was on the line asking him to lunch with her at the town house in Seville later that day. It didn't suit him. He would have to reschedule business appointments at the bank. But Leandro, uneasily aware that he spent little time with his relations, gave reluctant assent.
As he sipped his coffee his brilliant dark eyes rested on the full-length portrait of his late wife, Aloise, on the wall at the other end of the room. He wondered if anyone else in the family even appreciated that in forty-eight hours the anniversary of Aloise's death would take place. Aloise, his childhood friend, who in dying almost a year earlier had left a gaping hole in the settled fabric of his life. He wondered if he would ever get over the guilt induced by her tragic demise and decided that it would be wise to spend that day away from home working in London. Sentimentality was not one of Leandro's failings.
He spent a very busy morning at the Carrera Bank, an institution that had been handling the same clients' fortunes for generations and where his own services as one of the financial world's most fabulously successful investment bankers were much in demand. Strikingly intelligent and gifted in the field of wealth preservation and asset management, Leandro had been marked out early as a genius at analysing world money markets. Juggling complex figures gave him considerable pleasure and satisfaction. Numbers, unlike people, were easy to understand and deal with, he acknowledged wryly.
When he kept his luncheon appointment he was surprised to see that his mother's sister, his aunt Isabella, and his own two sisters, Estefania and Julieta, were also present.
'I felt that it was time to talk to you,' Doña Maria murmured with a meaningful look at her only son over the appetisers.
Leandro elevated a questioning ebony brow. 'About what, precisely?'
'You've been a widower for a year now.' It was Estefania who responded.
'Is there a point to that obvious statement?' Leandro enquired drily.
'You've spent enough time in mourning to satisfy the conventions. It's time to think of remarriage.' his mother informed him.
His lean, strong face rigidly controlled, Leandro stared steadily back at the older woman. 'I don't agree.'
Julieta, his younger sister piped up. 'Nobody is going to replace Aloise, Leandro. We don't expect that and neither can you'
'But you must put the family's unbroken line of inheritance first,' Doña Maria declared with gravity. 'There is presently no heir to the title or the estate. You are thirty-three years old. Last year when Aloise died we all learned how fragile and fickle life can be. What if something similar were to happen to you? You must remarry and father an heir, my son.'
Leandro compressed his handsome mouth into a bloodless line that would have encouraged less determined opponents to drop the subject. He had no need of such reminders when he had spent his life being made aware daily of his many responsibilities. Indeed he had never known an hour's freedom from the weighty burden of expectations that accompanied his privileged social status and great wealth. He had been raised in the same traditions as his ancestors to put duty and honour and family first. But an exceptional spark of rebellion was finally firing inside his lean, well built body.
'I'm aware of those facts, but I'm not ready to take another wife,' he retorted crisply.
'I thought it would be helpful if we drew up a short list of potential brides to help you,' Doña Maria contended with a wide smile that struck her angry son as bordering on manic.
'I don't think that would be helpful. Indeed I think it's a ludicrous idea,' Leandro replied coldly. 'When and if I remarry. I will choose my own wife.'
His aunt Isabella, however, would not be silenced. She put forward a candidate from a family as rich and prominent as their own. Leandro dealt her a look of scorn. His mother was, however,. even quicker to name her own selectiona young widow with a son and, therefore, what the older woman termed a proven fertility record. An expression of unhidden distaste crossed Leandro's classic dark features. He knew exactly why that point was being made. Unhappily, talk of fertility records reminded him of livestock breeding. His elder sister, Estefania, was not to be outdone and, oblivious to the disbelieving glances of her relations, suggested the teenaged daughter of a personal friend as being perfect bride material. Leandro almost laughed out loud at that idea. As he was well aware, marriage could be a most challenging relationship, even for those who might seem very well matched as a couple.
'We'll hold a party and invite some suitable women,' Doña Maria announced, continuing on her theme with the stubborn insensitivity of a woman determined to have her say. 'But not the teenager, Estefania. I really don't think so young a woman would be appropriate. A Marquez bride needs to be mature, well versed in etiquette, educated and socially accomplished, as well as being from a suitable background.'
'I will not attend any such party,' Leandro declared without hesitation. 'I have no intention of remarrying at this point in time.'
Julieta gave him an apologetic look. 'But at least if you went to the party you might fall in love with someone.'
'Leandro is the Duque de Sandoval.' Doña Maria countered in a deflating tone of ice. 'Thankfully, he knows who he is and he has no nonsense of that variety in his head.'
'There will be no party,' Leandro decreed, implacable outrage igniting steadily beneath his cool facade at their comments. He could hardly credit that his own relations could be so crass or interfering. But then he was willing to admit that none of them was close. The formality and reserve that his mother had always insisted on had driven wedges of polite behaviour between them all.
'We are only thinking of you and what is best for you,' Doña Maria murmured sweetly.
Leandro studied the woman who had sent him to an English boarding school at the age of six years old and remained impervious to his tear-stained letters begging to be allowed to come home. 'I know what is best for me, Mama. A man must act for himself in such a personal matter.'
'Happy birthday, Molly! What do you think?' Jez Andrews prompted, standing back from the car with a flourish.
Wide-eyed, Molly Chapman studied her elderly car. Jez had repainted it a cerise pink colour that she loved on sight. She walked round the vehicle, stunned by a transformation that had caused all the rust, dents and scratches to disappear. 'It's amazing! You've worked a miracle. Jez.'
'That's what mates are for. Hopefully it'll pass the MOT test now without any major problems. I've replaced a lot of parts. I knew that helping you to keep your car on the road was the best present I could give you,' her friend and landlord admitted.
Molly flung her arms round him in an exuberant hug. A stocky fair-haired man of medium height, Jez was still a comfortable seven inches taller than Molly, who was tiny in stature and build, with a mop of dark curls and enormous green eyes. Her quick graceful movements crackled with the energy of a lively personality. 'I don't know how to thank you.'
Jez shrugged and backed off, embarrassed by her gratitude. 'It was no big deal,' he said awkwardly.
But Molly knew the full value of his generosity and it touched her to the heart that he had sacrificed so much of his free time to work on her beat-up car. But then, Jez was her closest friend and he knew that she needed the vehicle to get round the craft shops and fairs where she sold her wares at weekends. Molly and Jez had been in foster care together as children and their ties went back a long way.
'Don't forget I'm staying over at Ida's tonight,' Jez reminded her. 'I'll see you tomorrow.'
'How is Ida?'
At the thought of the sick older woman, Jez vented a sad sigh. 'About as well as can be expected. I mean, it's not like she's going to get any better.'
'Any word of her getting into the hospice yet?'
'No, but she's top of the list.'
Thinking how typical it was of Jez to be helping to nurse the woman who had fostered him for a while in his teens, Molly went back indoors. It was almost time for her to go to work. Jez had inherited his terraced house and garden in Hackney from a bachelor uncle. That piece of good fortune had enabled him to finance and set up a car repair shop where he was currently making a comfortable living. Jez had been quick to offer Molly a bedsit in his home and the valuable opportunity to use the stone shed in the back garden to house her potter's kiln.
Success, however, had so far eluded Molly. She had left art college with such high hopes of the future, but even though she worked every hour she could for the catering company that employed her she still struggled to pay the rent and keep up with her bills. Her dream was to sell enough of her ceramics, which she made in her spare time, to make it worth her while to work full-time as a potter, and she often felt like a failure in the artistic stakes because she never seemed to get any closer to achieving her goal.
Like Jez, Molly had had a chequered background, which had encompassed constant change, broken relationships and insecurity. Her mother had died when she was nine years old and her grandmother had put her up for adoption while choosing to keep Ophelia, Molly's elder teenaged sister. Molly had never quite recovered from the simple fact that her own flesh and blood had handed her over to social services simply because she, unlike her sister, was illegitimate and, even worse, the embarrassing proof of her mother's affair with a married man. The sheer hurt of that unapologetic rejection had made Molly wary of trying to seek contact with her birth relations again once she grew up. Even now, at the age of twenty-two, she tended to block out the memories of the early years of her life and scold herself for the sense of loss that those dim recollections still roused. Molly was a survivor who, while priding herself on being as tough as old boots, had a heart as soft as a marshmallow.
That evening, her employers were catering for a wedding party at a big house in St John Wood. It was an upmarket booking for a new customer and her manager, Brian, was very anxious to get everything right. Molly tied her apron on over the narrow black skirt and white blouse that she wore for work. The bride's mother, Krystal Forfar, an enervated and emaciated blonde dressed in an oyster-pink dress, was rapping out imperious instructions to Brian in a shrill voice.
Brian signalled Molly. 'My senior waitress, Molly
There'll be a bloke here tonight'
'Mr Leandro Carrera Marquez,' the bride's mother interposed haughtily, pronouncing the foreign name in the sort of hallowed tones that most people reserved for royalty. 'He's a Spanish banker and, as my husband's employer, our most important guest. Make sure you wait on him hand and foot. Ensure his glass is never empty. I'll point him out when he arrives.'
'Fine,' Molly nodded acquiescence and sped off back to the kitchen where she was helping to unpack equipment.
'What was all that about?' Vanessa, her fellow waitress, asked.
'Another toff with more money than sense, I'll bet,' the redhead opined.
'If he's a banker, it's to be hoped he has both!' Molly joked.
The bride, stunning in a sophisticated sheath of white satin, appeared with her mother to check the buffet table. Molly watched while Mrs Forfar fussed over her daughter, twitching her train into place and adjusting her tiara. Unappreciative of the proud parental attention she was receiving, the bride uttered a sharp complaint about the colour of the napkinsso last year and not what she had ordered. Brian surged forward to apologise and explain the substitution, while Molly wondered why she herself had failed to win her mother's love, and why the only affection she had received during the first nine years of her life had been from her sister. Had her mother been so ashamed of her illegitimacy as well?