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Gabriel heard his secretary's sharp rap on his office door with a sense of relief.
Perched on his desk, with her high, high heels dangling from her feet and her short, short skirt provocatively and purposefully riding high enough to expose a generous eyeful of thigh, Cristobel had been in full flow for the past twenty minutes.
She needed to really start doing the shops, the wedding was getting closer by the day and everything had to be perfect and there was just no way that she was going to leave all the details to that ridiculous wedding planner his mother had insisted on hiring.
She had punctuated each statement with a flick of her long, curling blonde hair and a jabbing motion with her finger, taking care to lean forward so that he couldn't fail to notice her deep cleavage and the full swell of her breasts under the tightly pulled silk top.
Cristobel was nothing if not sweepingly confident about her ability to use her body to its maximum advantage and while Gabriel would concede that he had been distracted by it for all of two minutes, right now he just wanted her out of his office and safely tucked away in whatever mind-blowingly expensive shop she favoured. He really didn't care. He had calls to make and several reports to look at and the high pitched, insistent staccato of her voice was beginning to give him a headache.
Naturally he had contained his impatience because she was, after all, his fiancée but he had almost given his secretary a standing ovation when she had tactfully suggested that she had checked the personnel files and found a Spanish speaking employee who would be delighted to take Cristobel to Knightsbridge, where she would be able to shop to her heart's content before she headed back to Madrid.
'But I want you to come with me,' Cristobel pouted now, leaning further forward and sweeping aside several documents as she planted her hands flat on his desk. 'It's important for you to get involved with the planning.'
'You don't want me involved with the planning, Cristobel,' Gabriel told her dryly. 'At any rate, you know how I feel about these things. Lavish weddings are not my cup of tea.' Nor, he mused now, were weddings of any sort, at least in so far as they pertained to him, until a year ago when he had finally and philosophically ceded to loving but insistent parental pressure.
His parents were both keen to see him married and settled. They were getting older. They wanted grandchildren. Whilst they were still at an age to enjoy them. Before they died.
And Gabriel had finally acknowledged that perhaps the time was right to take a wife. There was a very thin line between the desirable bachelor and the oldest swinger in town. He was now in his thirties and life had a habit of racing on.
Cristobel would make a perfectly suitable wife. Her family tree was as old as his was and as wealthy. She understood the unspoken rules of the way his life operated and would abide by them. Whatever she wanted, she would have and in return she would understand that his work was a priority for him. She was also a beautiful woman, small, voluptuous and well groomed.
On paper, it was a union brokered in heaven and any doubts were expertly fielded by using common sense and reason, two things which had never let him down in his life before.
'You'll enjoy Harrods with another woman.' His phone rang and he answered it, his mind already on work, watching distractedly as Cristobel slid off his desk and stood up, smoothing down her tight cream skirt with her hands and pouting at him.
She was moving towards her bag when the door opened and in walked his Spanish-speaking saviour. A number on a file somewhere in the bowels of his cutting-edge glass building, a name he hadn't even been told because it was such an insignificant detail. But that face. The memory of it leapt out at him as though it had been lying just below the surface, nudging the edges of his consciousness.
Gabriel had a moment of utter speechlessness, while Cristobel continued to sort herself out, dabbing some lipstick on her mouth and angling a little compact mirror so that she could inspect her handiwork.
Alex Mcguire. He didn't need Janet to announce her because he realised that he could put the name to the person in an instant, even though it had been years since he had last had anything to do with her. She was as tall as he remembered, as tall as Cristobel was tiny, and she still had that coltish, boyish grace he had once found so unusual and so appealing. Short dark hair, which she had always defiantly refused to grow because she just wasn't that type of girl, the type of girl who wore stilettos and push up bras and red lipstick and tight clothes. In fact, he had never, not once, seen her in anything smart, but she was dressed smartly now, in a sober grey suit, although the shoes were still flat and the nails were still short and she still didn't wear much by way of make-up.
Alex, a newcomer to the Cruz business empire, had followed Gabriel Cruz's secretary along the opulent top floor of the offices in a state of nervous tension. At first, when she had been summoned from her lowly office on the first floor, she had steeled herself for a worst case scenario. Had she sent the wrong invoice to the wrong, very important client? Mistyped something critical? Used the wrong tone of voice to the wrong person on the telephone? She might just be a small cog in the finance department, but rumour had it that nothing escaped the mighty Gabriel Cruz's eagle eye and mistakes were never allowed to slip through the net. She needed this job. The salary was so much higher than what she had been getting before and when she thought that she might have blown it by doing something stupid, something that might require a personal summons by the great man himself, then her stomach had twisted into desperate knots and brought her out in a cold sweat.
But then she had been told that she was wanted for her translating abilities and she had relaxed a bit. She could speak Spanish fluently, had been assiduous in maintaining it even though she hadn't been back to Spain for a little over five years. Mr Cruz, she had been told, needed someone to visit the shops with his fiancée because he couldn't possibly spare the time and his fiancée's grasp of English was limited.
Now, as she stared at the legendary Gabriel Cruz, sitting behind his desk, a massive handmade creation which blended various shades of wood and looked as though it cost the earth, she felt the room begin to swim around her. Her throat felt dry, her brain seemed to decelerate to a standstill and a hot, burning tide of horrified colour swept into her face. She had to blink because the sight of the man in front of her was so extraordinarily, terrifyingly unexpected.
Reason tried to push its way through the tangled chaos of her thoughts, telling her that this couldn't possibly be the guy she had known all those years ago, because the guy she had known had not been called Gabriel Cruz and he certainly hadn't been some kind of mega-billionaire, but the testimony of her eyes was telling her otherwise.
She had to take a deep breath to steady herself. But she couldn't look at him. The resemblance was just too uncanny. Maybe it was just seeing this type. The sinfully good-looking Mediterranean type. Her brain had formed some weird ridiculous link, hence her feeling of being catapulted back in time.
'Well?' Cristobel demanded in Spanish. She looked at Gabriel sourly. 'Is this the girl who is supposed to come shopping with me?'
Gabriel was back in control. There was no point in playing catch up games now. 'She speaks Spanish. And, as I have said, I can't spare the time at the moment.'
'Look at her! How is she going to know where to take me?'
'Excuse me?' Alex interrupted, clearing her throat and forcing a polite smile on her face. Did they think that she was a pot plant to be spoken about as though she wasn't in the room? 'If you tell me what sort of stuff you're looking for
' She couldn't bring herself to look at the man lounging indolently behind the desk. Her imagination had been working overtime but she still wanted to get out of that office as quickly as possible.
Any longer and she might just start wondering what would happen if Gabriel Cruz really was her Lucio and there was no way that she was going to play mind games with herself and get lulled into visualising how catastrophic that would be.
'I need clothes,' Cristobel snapped. 'I need trinkets for my boxes to go on the tables. I need something exquisite for Vanya.' She moved behind the desk and wrapped her arms around Gabriel. 'And I cannot imagine this girl being able to help me. She has barely said a word since she entered! Darling' she brushed her lips against his neck and he gently but firmly disentangled her from him 'is there no one else in this place who speaks Spanish? I need someone on my wavelength. She doesn't even know how to dress!'
Alex gritted her teeth together. 'I apologise for being a bit lost for words
' she reluctantly allowed her gaze to flit over Gabriel '
but for a minute you reminded me of someone I used to know, Mr Cruz. Sir.' She hurriedly averted her eyes to Cristobel, who didn't look dressed for a shopping trip in the middle of winter. 'I tend to dress in a practical fashion but I know where all the trendy places are.'
'I am not looking for trendy. I am looking for classic.'
'Yes. Well. Those too.'
'I suppose you will have to do. My coat is in the cupboard.'
Feeling as bulky as a bodyguard, Alex fetched the coat and followed in Cristobel's imperious wake, half listening to the further list of things that needed sorting out, half thinking her own thoughts because just seeing Lucio's doppelganger had opened a door to a bank of memories and now they wafted through her mind, overpowering her attempts at control like a poisonous gas.
Making love to Lucio, laughing, talking until the early hours of the morning and then making love again so that she was exhausted when she rose in the morning to help out in the kitchens where she had been working for part of her gap year. Learning the hotel business while polishing up her Spanish and also developing a healthy tan. And, disastrously, falling in love. Eighteen and in love with the most gorgeous man alive. Boys had always been a known quantity for her. She had four brothers, for heaven's sake! She had known how to relate to them, how to talk about football and rugby and cars. She had even had a couple of boyfriends, drank beer with them and got freezing cold watching football matches in the depths of winter but nothing had prepared her for meeting Lucio. He had been everything a girl could ever dream of, a raven-haired, black-eyed, broodingly and impossibly sexy Spanish alpha male, not a boy but a man and one who had taken her girlish inexperience and turned it on its head.
Five years' worth of uninvited memories were her companions for the remainder of the day and Alex returned to her desk six and a half hours after she had left the office, wrung out and with barely any time to spare. For the first time that day, she succeeded in relegating the disturbing procession of memories out of her head because she was in such a rush to get back to her little terraced house in West London.
She was rummaging in her bag, trying to locate her Oyster card for the underground and save herself the daily embarrassment of holding up a queue of belligerent rush hour office workers while she frantically tried to find the elusive little plastic folder, when her telephone rang and she automatically picked it up, sticking the receiver under her chin so that she could continue her hunt.
Gabriel Cruz's voice, that deep, lazy drawl with its slight foreign intonation, brought her to a screeching halt and she felt her heart speed up. She had done a pretty good job convincing herself that her boss was not a spectre from her past. Gabriel Cruz had never been a broke, nomadic hotel worker. He had always had bucket-loads of money. His family, apparently, could trace their heraldic roots back to the dawn of time. She had managed to elicit that much from Cristobel and the information had finally silenced any lingering fears, but hearing his disembodied voice now made her think that time had somehow managed to rewind, throwing her back to that small hotel in Spain.
'Come up to my office. Now.'
I'm sorry. Sir. Mr Cruz. I can't. I'm on my way out. Perhaps it could wait until tomorrow?'
'How long have you been working for my company?'
'Three weeks,' Alex said weakly, glancing frantically between the door and her watch.
'Long enough, in that case, to know that I do not appreciate my employees clock-watching. So that you are crystal clear on the matterI wasn't issuing an invitation to my office; I was giving you an order.'
'Everything went fine today! I think your fiancée managed to get through most of what she wanted to
'In my office. I will give you five minutes.' He disconnected and pushed himself away from his desk. It bugged him that he had not been able to get Alex's image out of his head. He told himself that it was a futile exercise to dwell on what had happened between them. He had enjoyed many women in his life and had never had any problem in relegating them to history once they had ceased to be a part of his life. So why had he found it so difficult to stop thinking about this one? Was it because she had appeared out of the blue and had caught him unawares? Or was it because she held the unique position of having been the only woman he had bedded who had never had an inkling of his material worth? He didn't know. What he did know was that she had played havoc with his concentration. He was also keenly aware that thinking about another woman when he was engaged to be married in four months' time was entirely inappropriate.