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"Rina! Over here!"
Sarina Woodville turned her head to the sound of her twin sister's voice. A huge smile spread across her tired features as she picked out the vibrant redhead in the crowd of faces in the airport's arrivals hall. Clearing customs and immigration had been smooth and efficient, a fact she was very grateful for at this stage of her journey. Tugging her suitcase along behind her, Rina crossed the short distance to her sister's waiting arms.
"It's so good to see you," Rina said.
"How was your trip? Absolute hell, I bet. It's so long, isn't it?" Sara bubbled along, not really listening for a response.
Despite how obviously happy her twin was to see her, Rina couldn't help but notice the strain on her face and the dark rings around her eyes.
"Sara, is everything okay? You're still all right with me staying with you, aren't you?"
She really hoped Sara hadn't changed her mind. When Rina's engagement had unexpectedly come to an ignominious end last week and Sara had suggested she come to Isla Sagrado for some much needed cosseting, she'd jumped at the chance to get away for a while. But now she was afraid she might be in the way. Sara had only recently become engaged herself, to some guy called Reynard del Castillo. Just privately, Rina thought the name a little on the pretentious side but then again, from what she'd heard from Sara, the family was virtually royalty here on this tiny Mediterranean island republic.
The del Castillos had sponsored the equestrian event trials Sara had participated in here after a successful tour in France. Her e-mails had been full of effusive praise for the beauty of the island—and the men on it. It hadn't taken a Mensa-rated IQ to see where her flighty sister was leading when her e-mails had mentioned Reynard del Castillo on several occasions. Their rapid engagement, though, had come as a huge surprise. This Reynard must be quite a man to have pinned Sara down.
Sara flashed her a weak smile. "Come to the cafe over here and we can talk."
"Can't we talk on the way to your place?" Rina asked, confused.
Right now she wanted nothing more than a shower, maybe a hot drink and then about ten or twelve uninterrupted hours of sleep. By tomorrow morning she was certain she'd be feeling human again. The journey between New Zealand and Isla Sagrado, with all its painfully necessary stopovers and airport transfers, was hitting around thirty-seven hours now, and counting. She was ready to drop on her feet.
"It's complicated and I don't have much time. I'm really sorry. I will explain later, I promise, but right now I have to get back to France."
"You what?" Rina's heart plummeted.
She knew Sara had recently been visiting some friends in the South of France, people she'd met on the event circuit, but had been due back today. Hence Rina's arrival here, timed to coincide with Sara's.
"Back to France? But didn't you fly in just now?"
Sara nodded, and wouldn't meet Rina's eyes. Instead she glanced at the departures board against the far wall.
"I did, but I'm just not ready to be back here yet. I thought I would be, but I need more time. Here." She reached into her handbag to grab an envelope and thrust it across the small, round table at Rina. "I wrote this for you just in case we missed one another this afternoon. Look, I'm really sorry. I wish I wasn't so strapped for time. I know you came here for support, but I really need your help. I've laid it all out in the letter and I promise to be back here for you as soon as I've sorted things out.
"Go to the cottage, I've given you the key in here." She tapped the envelope. "Settle yourself in, then when I get back we'll have a good old bitch-and-gossip session and get all our man-worries out of our systems, okay?"
The public address system suddenly crackled to life, announcing a final call for passengers to Perpignan.
"Oh, that's me. I'm so sorry, Reeny-bean," Sara said, using the pet name she'd always used when she needed to cajole or coerce her sister into a favor. "I know I said I'd be here for you but—"
Sara rose from her seat and reached forward to envelop Rina in her arms.
"I'll make it up to you soon, I promise. Love you!"
And then, she was gone. Stunned, Rina sat at the tiny table and watched as her sister disappeared in the direction of her departure gate. When it finally penetrated her shell-shocked, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived mind that Sara had really gone and left her here, her fingers clenched reflexively around the envelope in her hand. The crinkle of paper reminded her that the only way she was going to get an answer from her sister right now was to open the envelope.
It was bulkier than she'd expected and she ripped away the seal to tip out the letter and a key—and something else that tumbled with a brilliant flash and landed on the coffee-cup-rim-stained table in front of her. Rina reached quickly to pick it up, barely stifling a gasp of shock as she did so. A massive princess-cut diamond solitaire set on an ornately chaste platinum band winked back at her.
It was typical Sara to put something so valuable in something as innocuous and insecure as an envelope. Rina stifled the sudden surge of irritation that flooded through her at Sara's careless actions, and unfolded the single sheet of paper. As she read her sister's looped handwriting, her fingers fisted tight around the ring in her hand.
Rina groaned out loud. Sara hadn't. She couldn't have. It was beyond belief and way beyond anything her sister had ever done before. No wonder she hadn't wanted to admit any of this face-to-face and had run the instant she'd had the opportunity. Rina scoured the words again, hoping against hope that she'd misread something, but no.
Darling Rina, I'm so sorry I can't be there with you. I know it's a tough time for you but at least you're away from him—and can take some time to heal. Thing is, I think I've made a big mistake and I really need some space to think long and hard about whether I'm doing the right thing. Please, can you be me for a few days while I sort things out? Reynard will never need to know. Just put on my engagement ring and wear some of my stuff—you know, like we used to before we grew up. Well, before you grew up anyway. My maturity is probably still under question.
Sara went on to list a few hints and tips about Reynard, things like how they'd met, what his favorite beverage was, where they'd been together.
Beneath her exhaustion and the shock of her sister's outrageous request, Rina felt anger begin to swell from deep inside.
How dare Sara ask her to do this? Had she no compassion for anyone but herself? How could she expect her twin, fresh from a painful broken engagement, to slide straight into another and pretend to be someone she wasn't? It was totally and completely wrong. Let alone what it was expecting of Rina, it certainly wasn't fair to Reynard del Castillo, either.
Rina crushed the letter in her hand as her anger inflamed and grew. The words Sara had used imprinted on her mind.
I think I've made a big mistake.
She heard almost exactly the same words play in her head from when she'd last heard them. Not from Sara, but from her ex-fiancé, Jacob.
Despite the warmth in the airport terminal, Rina felt suddenly and unutterably cold. She was back there in that restaurant. Their favorite. Sitting across from the man she'd planned to spend the rest of her life with and hearing him tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else. How he'd been putting off telling her for months but with their wedding only a week away, he could put it off no longer.
Rina shook her head to rid it of the images lodged there. After the deception Jacob had practiced all those months, the thought of deceiving someone else made her feel physically ill. There was no way she was doing this. Not even for her twin. No way.
She shoved the letter, key and ring into the envelope and pushed them deep inside her handbag before hoisting the bag back onto her weary shoulder and getting up from the table. She reached for the handle on her suitcase and pulled it along behind her. She was going to find a taxi, go to the cottage where Sara had been staying, get showered, get dressed and, somehow, find this Reynard del Castillo and tell him what her sister was obviously too afraid to. No one deserved to be lied to as Sara had suggested. No one.
Reynard del Castillo studied the court report that had sat on his office desk now for six months. He'd kept it there as a reminder to be ever-vigilant of the opportunists who frequently targeted his family as a fast ticket to easy street.
He opened the report and stared at the name marked in bold ink. Estella Martinez. The woman had worked for him here in his office. Vivacious, beautiful and intelligent, he'd almost been tempted into indulging in an affair with her. Almost, but not quite, because instinct warned him she was not what she painted herself to be. When Estella had attempted to stage a scene between them, one where he would be seen to be breaching employer-employee protocols, he'd spun into action to ensure that her claims of sexual harassment and her offers to keep things quiet— both from his family and the tabloids, for several hundred thousand Euros—fell flat in the dust.
Estella Martinez's pitiful grasping attempt at her moment of fame, her attempts at extortion—all of it had been exposed in the closed court trial. He'd used every one of his contacts and the weight of his family name and position to see that her charges were brought before the Court within the minimum amount of time and that there was no public access to either the proceedings or the results of those proceedings.
To avoid a prison sentence for the extortion attempt, she had agreed to the gag clause his attorneys had so cleverly worded as well as the restraining order to remain well away from Isla Sagrado and any member of the del Castillo family, wherever they might be traveling.
He slid the concisely written papers back into the envelope in which they'd been delivered and sent the entire package through his shredder. There, gone as effectively as she had been escorted to the airport and off the island. He needed no such reminders now.
While the experience had left a bad taste in his mouth, his recent engagement to Sara Woodville was all the more sweet. She made few demands upon their relationship, which was exactly the way he wanted it to be, and helped to serve the purpose for which the engagement was intended: to keep his grandfather off his back about the curse of the governess. The old story of the curse dated back hundreds of years to a time of myths and superstitions which was where, in Reynard's opinion, nonsense like that belonged. But his grandfather, Abuelo, had recently fixated on it, and to ensure the old man stopped worrying about Rey and his brothers being the last of the family line, as the curse predicted, Reynard and his brothers had taken steps to ease his fears.
It had been bad enough when Abuelo' s unnecessary tension and worry had led to a stroke last month. His manservant had acted swiftly and Abuelo had received the vital medical care he needed to begin a strong recovery. Neither Rey nor his brothers, Alexander and Benedict, wanted to go through that again. They'd already resolved to do whatever it took to put the family patriarch's mind at rest, to ensure his final years were as comfortable as they could be.
Alex had gone so far as to revisit a twenty-five-year-old engagement promise made when he was only a boy and the woman involved was but three months old. Rey smiled as he thought of his new sister-in-law, Loren. She'd looked so frail and feminine—so young when she'd returned to Isla Sagrado to be Alex's bride. Who could have known a backbone of pure steel ran through her tiny frame?
She'd fought hard for her marriage. Fought and won. And strangely enough, she and Alex no longer scorned the idea of the curse. If anything, in their happiness, they were all the more determined for him and Benedict to settle down.
Settling down wasn't really something Reynard was ready for, but in the meantime, being engaged to Sara was working out quite nicely when it came to soothing Abuelo's mind. And that, ultimately, was all Reynard was concerned with. Reynard would do whatever it took to protect his family—to ease every fear and to eliminate, utterly and completely, any threat. And women like Estella Martinez—well, they would get their just deserts every time.
Sarina lifted her face to the warm Mediterranean sun as she stepped outside Isla Sagrado's airport terminal. The contrast between the golden kiss of heat on her cheeks and the icy chill of rain, sleet and snow back home in the South Island of New Zealand was unbelievable. No wonder Sara had chosen to stay here rather than come home to a southern hemisphere winter.
And if all had gone as it was supposed to, Rina would have been not far from here on a Greek island for her honeymoon. She remembered going to the travel agency with Jacob and poring over the brochures, weighing and balancing the charms of each destination to find the perfect place to celebrate the start of their new life together.
Rina absently rubbed the ring finger of her left hand with her thumb. An old habit, and one she would train herself to stop as she became all too aware of the deficit there and the faint indentation in her skin.
She tilted her head back a little, and closed her eyes against the brightness of the sun. Funny how her eyes watered even behind her sunglasses.
So what if Jacob had wanted someone more spontaneous, someone who wasn't afraid to spice things up? Rina bit back tears at the memory of the emotional hurt he'd inflicted. And here she'd thought she'd chosen a life partner who was stable and secure—someone the complete antithesis of her parents and their fiercely intense, competitive and oftentimes combative relationship. Just went to prove how wrong a girl could be. She'd have felt better if she and Jacob had fought—if he'd simply told her that she wasn't what he wanted, rather than stringing her along for all that time, long after he'd stopped loving her.