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There was no emotion in the voice of the tall, dark-haired, aristocratic Spaniard looking down at her from his six-feet-plus height. No welcome of any kind for her. But even without the disapproval and the almost rigid distaste she could see in his expression, Felicity knew that Vidal y Salvadores, Duque de Fuentualba, would never welcome her presence here on his home soilher home soil in one sense, given that her late father was Spanish.
Spanish, and Vidal's adopted uncle.
It had taken every bit of courage she'd had and nights of sleeplessness for her to come here, but there was no way she was going to let Vidal know that. No quarter would be asked from him by her, because she knew that none would be given. She had had proof of that.
Panic fluttered in her stomach, rising swiftly inside her to set her heart thudding and her pulse racing. She must not think about that. Not now, when she needed all her strength. When she knew that that strength would dissolve like a mirage in the heat of the Andalusian sun if she allowed those dreadful, shameful memories to surface and those sickening images to form inside her head.
Fliss felt she had never longed more for the comforting and supportive love of her motheror even the courage-inducing presence of her trio of girlfriends. But they, like her mother, were now absent from her life. They might be alive, not dead like her mother, but their careers had taken them to distant parts of the world. Only she had remained in their home town, and was now its Deputy Tourism Directora responsible, demanding job.
A job that meant she could tell herself she was far too busy to have the time to build up a meaningful relationship with a man?
Thinking such thoughts was like biting down on a raw nerve in a tooth, the pain immediate and sharp. Better to think about why she had decided to use some of the leave entitlement she had built up through the long hours she worked in order to come here, when the reality was that her father's will could have been dealt with quite easily in her absence. That was certainly what Vidal would have wanted to happen.
If only she had the courage to fly free of her own past. If only she wasn't shackled to the past by a shame so bone deep that she could never escape from it. If only
There were so many if onlys in her lifemost of them caused by Vidal.
In the heat of the concourse outside the busy Spanish airport into which she had just flown, filled with other people milling around them, he took a step towards her. Immediately she reacted, her body tensing in angry rejecting panic, her brain freezing so that she couldn't either speak or move.
It might have been seven years since she had last seen him, but she had recognised him immediately. Impossible for her not to do so when his features were cut so deep into her emotions. So deep and so poison-ously that even now the wounds caused by those cuts had still not healed. That was nonsense, Fliss told herself. He had no power over her nowno power of any kind. And she was here to prove that to him.
'There was no need for you to meet me,' she told him, forcing herself to raise her head and look him in the eyes. Those eyes that had once looked at her in a way that had flayed the skin from her pride and her self-respect and left them raw and bleeding.
Her stomach churned again as she watched his far too handsome, arrogant, aristocratic male profile tighten into hauteur. His mouth curled in contemptuous disdain as he looked down at her, the late-afternoon Spanish sunlight shining on his thick dark hair. She was five feet seven, but she had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze, her own firing up from warm blue into heated violet as she met the look he was giving her.
She was hot and travel weary, and her body reacted to the unfamiliar heat as she resisted the need to lift the heavy weight of her thick, dark gold shoulder-length hair away from the back of her neck. She could already feel it starting to curl round her face in the humid heat, overcoming the effort she had made to straighten it into an immaculate elegance. Not that her appearance could ever compete with the true elegance of the smartly turned-out Spanish women around her. She favoured casual clothes, and was dressed in a pair of clean but well-washed and faded jeans, worn with a loose white cotton top. The jacket she had been wearing when she had boarded her flight in the UK was now stashed away in her roomy leather handbag.
Vidal frowned as his gaze was drawn inexorably to the windblown sensuality of her naturally honey-streaked hair, reminding him of the last time he had seen it. Her hair, like her body, had been spread against her bed, enjoying the amorous attentions of the boy who had been fondling her before Vidal and her mother had interrupted their illicit intimacy.
Angrily Vidal looked away from her. Her presence here was unwanted and unwelcome, her morals an affront to everything he believed in, but like the dark matter at the heart of a poisoned wound there was also that kernel of self-knowledge that raked his pride and refused to be locked away and forgotten.
To have looked into the wanton sensuality of her face, to have witnessed the manner in which she, at sixteen already an experienced tramp, had flaunted that sensuality mockingly in front of him, without a trace of shame, should have filled him with disgust and nothing but disgust. Only along with that disgust, like a sword plunged straight through his body, there had been that momentary pride-searing, lightning surge of desire. It had burned a brand of searing self-contempt through him, and the embers had never fully cooled.
She might be able to get under his skin, but he could never allow her back into his heart.
She shouldn't have come here, Fliss told herself. Not knowing that she would have to confront Vidal. Not knowing what he thought about her and why. But how could she not have come? How could she have denied herself this final opportunity to know something of the man who had fathered her?
Unlike her, Vidal looked impeccably cool in the heat, his suit that shade of neutral light beige that only continental men seemed to be able to wear with confidence, the blue shirt he was wearing beneath his jacket somehow emphasising the falcon gold of his eyes. A hunter's eyes, a predator's eyes, cold with cruelty and menace. She knew she would never forget those eyes. They haunted her nightmares, their gaze sliding over her like ice, their chilling contempt burning her skin and her pride.
She was not going to allow Vidal to see how she felt, though. She wasn't going to shrink away in fear beneath their incisive, lacerating focus, just as she wasn't going to be intimidated by him. Only to herself was she prepared to admit that it had been a shock to find him waiting for her at the airport. She had not expected thateven though she had written to the lawyers informing them of her plansplans she knew he would not like or approve of, but which she had no intention of changing. A thrill of triumph laced with adrenalin shot through her at the thought of getting the better of him.
'You haven't changed, Vidal,' she told him, summoning her courage. 'You still obviously hate the thought of me being my father's daughter. But then you would do, wouldn't you? After all, it was in part thanks to you that my parents were forced apart, wasn't it? You were the one who betrayed them to your grandmother.'
'They would never have been allowed to marry.'
Fliss knew that that was trueher mother had said so herself, with more sadness in her voice than bitterness but Fliss wasn't going to give up the opportunity to seize the moral high ground from Vidal so easily.
'They might have found a way, if they'd had more time.'
Vidal looked away from her. Inside his head was a memory he didn't want to have brought back to him: the sound of his own seven-year-old voice, naively telling his grandmother about the way in which he and his au pair had unexpectedly bumped into his adopted uncle when she had taken him on a visit to the Alhambra not realising then that his uncle was supposed to have been in Madrid on family business, and certainly not realising the significance of that seemingly unexpected meeting.
His grandmother had realised what it meant, though. Felipe had been the son of her oldest friend, Maria Romero, an impoverished but aristocratic widow. When Maria had learned she had terminal cancer, and only a matter of months to live, she'd asked her friend to adopt twelve-year-old Felipe after her death and raise him as her own son. Both his grandmother and Maria had held the old-school belief that those of certain familiesof certain blood and traditionshould always and only marry those who shared those things.
Guilt. It was a heavy burden to bear. 'They would never have been allowed to marry,' he repeated.
He was hateful, arrogant, with a pride as cold as ice and as hard as granite, Fliss thought angrily. Technically her mother might have died from heart failure, but who was to say that part of that failure had not been caused by a broken heart and destroyed dreams? Her mother had only been thirty-seven when she'd died, and Fliss eighteen, just about to go to university. Eighteen and a girl stillbut now, at twenty-three, she was a woman.
Was that a hint of guilty colour she could see burning up the golden skin bequeathed to him by generations of high-born nobles of supposedly pure Castilian blood? She doubted it. This man wasn't capable of such feelingsof any kind of real feelings for other people. His blood didn't allow that. Blood which some whispered had once been mixed with that of a Moorish princess coveted by the proud Castilian who was her family's enemy and who had stolen her away from that family for his own pleasure, giving to the wife who shared his bloodline the boy child born of his forbidden relationship, and leaving his stolen concubine to die of grief at the loss of her child.
Fliss could well imagine that a family that had spawned a man like the one standing in front of her now could have committed such a terrible act. When her mother had first told her the tale of that long-ago Castilian duque she had immediately linked him in her own thoughts to the current duque. They shared the same cruel disregard for the feelings of others, the same arrogant belief that who they were gave them the right to ride roughshod over other people, to make judgements about them and then condemn them without ever allowing them to defend themselves. The right to deny a child access to her father, prevent her knowing and loving her father simply because they did not consider that child 'good enough' to be a part of their family.
Her father. Inside her head Fliss tasted the words, rolling them round her tongue, their flavour and intimacy both confusing and new. She'd spent so much of her life secretly wondering about her father, secretly imagining them meeting, secretly wanting to bring about that meeting. At home, in her smart flat in an elegant Georgian house which had been converted into apartments set in beautifully maintained gardens, complete with a tennis court and an indoor swimming pool and gym for the use of the residents, Fliss had a box in which she kept all the letters she had secretly written to her father but never sent. Letters she had kept hidden from her mother, not wanting to hurt her. Letters that had never been sentall bar one of them.
Her great-grandmother might have been the one to originally part her parents, but it was Vidal who had prevented her from making contact with him. Vidal who had denied her the right to get to know her father because he had not thought her 'good enough' to be acknowledged as part of his family.
At least her father had attempted to make some kind of reparation for allowing her to be shut out of his life.
'Why have you come here, Felicity?'
The coldness in Vidal's voice stirred Fliss's pride.
'You know perfectly well why I am here. I'm here because of my father's will.'
As she spoke the words my father, Fliss felt her emotions pushing up under the control she always tried to impose on them. There had been so much pain, so much confusion, so much shame within her over the years, born of the rejection of her and her mother by her father's family. And for her it was Vidal who personified that rejection. Vidal who'd denied and hurt herin many ways far more than her father himself had.
Vidal. Fliss forced down the emotions threatening to swamp her, afraid of what might happen to her once they did, of what she might have to confront within herself once their roaring tide subsided, leaving her vulnerabilities revealed.
The truth was that she wasn't here because of any material benefit that accrued to her from her father's will, but because of the emotional benefitthe emotional healing she longed for so much. There was no power on this earth, though, that would ever be able to force her to reveal that truth to Vidal.
'There was no need for you to come here because of Felipe's will, Felicity. The letter his lawyer sent to you made the terms of it perfectly clear. Your presence here is neither needed nor necessary.'