Authors: Kate Walker
‘It’s that—prospective bride bit. It’s a lie.’
‘Only a white lie,
. Surely in order to make an ill man happy you can salve your conscience for a little while and play a part. If you can convince a bunch of tourists that there are ghosts walking around York…’
‘That’s my job! It’s what I get paid for.’
‘If you want payment—I’ll give you anything you want! Think of it as a job. All I ask is that you do your damnedest to be convincing. I want my father and mother to believe we are the happiest couple on earth.’
‘I’m not that good an actress.’
‘I think you are. I’ve seen you, remember? I watched you last night. You almost had me convinced that some spirit would come creeping out of the walls of that tower.’
‘I was working to a script!’
‘Then I will give you a script!’
Reaching out, he took her hand, drew her very close as he looked down into her shadowed green eyes.
‘You and I met just a few months ago. I was in England on business. You were at a party I was invited to. We looked into each other’s eyes and it was like
—a thunderclap. We fell in love in an instant. All we want is to be married. As quickly as possible.’
She tried to protest, tried to break through the hypnotic spell his voice was weaving around her, but she didn’t have the strength. His words were taking her back into the past. Reminding her of how it had once been.
‘Think about how it once was with us, Isabella.’ Luis bent his proud head, kissed her mouth with heartbreaking softness. ‘It wasn’t so very long ago. Surely you can remember that?’
How could she forget it? It was etched into her memories, branded on her heart. It had been all she had ever dreamed of. And now it was what she wanted back most in all the world.
And when he looked at her like that, when the husky, enticing tones of his softly accented voice pleaded with her to do as he asked, she was helpless, soft as wax in his hands.
‘All—all right, I’ll…’ she began shakily, but Luis didn’t give her a chance to complete her sentence. Lacing his fingers in hers, he squeezed her hand tight.
‘It’s not so very far from the truth,’ he told her, leading her
up the remainder of the drive and into the stone-flagged courtyard of the castle.
But almost immediately it was as if the shadows cast by the high walls had fallen over Isabelle’s heart. Her steps slowed, coming to a complete halt as she looked up at the huge, carved oak door.
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t think I can.’
, why the hell not? You’ve come this far, you can’t back out now.’
‘But I don’t think I can go through with it.’
‘Of course you can.’
He dismissed her fears with an arrogant little flick of his hand.
‘But if you want a little help…’
Before she knew what was coming, he had reached out and caught hold of her arm. Swinging her round, he brought her up close to him, held tight against the hard wall of his chest.
‘This should do it,’ he muttered roughly as his head came down, his mouth taking hers hard and fast, crushing her lips underneath his.
The world seemed to swing around her, her thoughts filling with a buzzing haze. The warmth of the sun was as nothing when compared to the heat that was flooding her body, making her heart pound fiercely, setting her blood throbbing in her veins.
She responded instinctively, urgent hands clutching at his powerful shoulders, fingers digging into the hard muscle underneath the fine cotton of his navy shirt. Her mouth opened under his, allowing, and hungrily responding to the tantalising dance of provocation of his tongue. Her pliant body arched towards his, glorying in the feeling of his male strength against her own, and electric thrill sparking in every nerve as she felt the heated pressure of his erection against the softness of her pelvis. Hard hands cupped her buttocks, pressing her even closer.
When Luis finally released her, she was breathing hard and
unevenly. Her scalp tingled where his hands had twisted in her hair, and she knew that her face was flushed, her eyes overbright as if she had a fever.
Which she did, she admitted to herself. Luis was like a fever in her blood, a fatal addiction. She would never be free of him, and, if the truth was told, she never wanted to be. He was all she had ever dreamed of in a man.
Luis’s voice was rich with dark satisfaction, a tiger’s purr of pleasure.
‘Now you look like a newly engaged fiancée. A woman hopelessly in love with the man she has agreed to marry.’
Of course she did, Isabelle admitted to herself. She looked that way because she really was that woman. There was no point in trying to deny it, or hide it from herself any longer.
The one thing and the one alone that had brought her here was the fact that her love for Luis had never died. The flame of it still burned deep inside her heart, unwavering and unquenchable, in spite of all their years apart.
But whatever Luis had been about to say went unfinished. His words were interrupted by the sound of footsteps behind the heavy door, the buzz of puzzled Spanish reaching them vaguely through the solid wood.
‘My family,’ he said abruptly. ‘They heard the car and they’ve grown tired of waiting so they’ve come looking for us. Ready?’
Isabelle could only shake her head, a terrible sense of apprehension freezing her tongue and making her breath catch in her throat.
‘There’s no need to look like that.’ Luis actually sounded as if he understood, the gentleness in his voice knocking her right off balance. ‘They won’t bite.’
‘But what if they don’t like me?’
Her voice shook with the strain of controlling her real fears. She had come here in the hope of reviving what she and Luis
had once had, of convincing him that he had been wrong to believe she could ever be unfaithful to him. But what if he never changed his mind? What if he never ever loved her again?
‘How could they not like you?’ he asked now. ‘All they ask for is that you make me happy. And you will.’
‘I will? How—?’
But she couldn’t finish the question because at that moment the door was pulled open and a tall, black-haired woman appeared, her arms outstretched in welcome.
‘Luis, welcome home. And this—is this lovely young woman your fiancée?’
Luis moved forwards, one strong arm snaking round Isabelle’s waist, taking her with him.
‘Isabella, come and meet my mother…’
Desperate to hide her nervousness, Isabelle switched on a smile that she prayed looked genuine. But it faltered, almost disappearing as Luis bent his dark head until his mouth was close to her ear.
‘You know only too well how to make me happy,
,’ he whispered, warm breath feathering over her skin. ‘Just as I know exactly how to please you. And if you’re good, I’ll prove it to you tonight.’
leaned her arms on the wide stone sill of the castle’s arched windows and stared out at the darkened landscape, a low despondent sigh escaping her. She felt lost and isolated, a crazy, inexplicable feeling in a place full of people, but the truth was that she had never known loneliness like it.
She didn’t know who she was or where she belonged any more. She was Luis’s wife and yet here, amongst his family, she was only his fiancée. The
had welcomed her into their home, treated her like an honoured guest, but she knew that her presence here was just a pretence, that she was deceiving them by pretending to be something she was not. And Luis…
The sigh deepened. The truth was that she just didn’t really know how Luis saw her.
A soft sound of a knock at the door startled her, bringing her head up sharply.
‘Who is it?’
‘Your fiancé of course.’ Even through the thickness of the door, the irony in Luis’s tone was clear. ‘Were you expecting someone else?’
‘I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ Isabelle protested as she wrenched open the door. ‘Least of all you. What are you doing here?’
‘I’m performing my duties as your host,’ he drawled sar
donically, black straight brows lifting in disapproval at her tone. ‘I came to see if you were comfortable and your room was okay.’
She couldn’t look him in the face, every heightened sense was too aware of him for that. He was still wearing the trousers of the elegant silver grey silk suit he had changed into for dinner, but he had discarded the jacket somewhere. The fine linen of his white shirt clung softly to the firm lines of his torso, emphasising the width of chest and broad straight shoulders. He had tugged his tie loose at the neck, unfastening a couple of buttons, and the immaculate colour seemed to glow vividly against the smooth tanned skin of his throat.
‘Luis, you’ve seen my flat. You know that compared to that this…’ her gesture took in the elegantly furnished room with a genuine four-poster bed, thick rose-coloured carpet and curtains ‘…is total luxury. I couldn’t be more comfortable.’
‘You’re quite sure you have everything you need.’
‘I’m perfectly fine! You don’t even have to ask that! Goodnight.’
To emphasise the point, she tried to shut the door in his face, only to find the movement prevented by the swift insertion of one elegantly booted foot into the open space.
‘I also thought you might like a nightcap.’
He lifted a hand to display a bottle of red wine and two glasses hooked between his fingers.
‘Something to relax you.’
‘I think not.’
‘It’s from our own vineyards,’ he continued imperturbably, obviously unconcerned by her unwelcoming tone. ‘I think you’d enjoy it.’
‘And what would your parents think to that?’
Luis affected a pretence of not understanding, widening his eyes in a display of innocence.
‘Think to what,
‘To your being here, alone, with me at this time of night. Wouldn’t they think—?’
‘They wouldn’t expect anything else,’ Luis inserted smoothly, flooring her completely. ‘We are, after all, man and wife.’
‘But your parents don’t know that!’
‘They know that we are engaged, and they are modern minded enough to know that very few couples actually wait until they’ve exchanged vows before they share a bed together.’
‘But all the same…’
Her grip on the door had loosened a little, her concentration wavering. Luis took full advantage of the situation by pushing it wider and slipping in through the open space. Strolling across the room, he deposited the bottle and glasses on the bedside table, pulled a corkscrew from his pocket and set about stripping the foil from the bottle with swift efficiency.
, would be very surprised, not to say concerned, if we didn’t want to spend some time alone together, particularly at this new and very special stage in our relationship.’
He didn’t look her in the eyes as he spoke, his attention apparently on opening the bottle, extracting the cork as smoothly and skilfully as possible.
‘They believe we have just become engaged. That we are madly in love with each other.’
‘And we both know that that couldn’t be further from the truth!’ Uncertainty and tension pushed the words from her mouth.
Luis’s busy hands stilled suddenly, his whole body freezing into immobility in a way that made her heart clench sharply. But a moment later he had returned to his task, apparently focusing only on that and nothing else.
‘Is that a fact?’ he drawled at last, his words punctuated by the faint pop as the cork finally slid from the bottle.
Isabelle’s heart, which had started to relax, tightened up again, more fearfully this time, as she tried to interpret just what his tone of voice might mean.
‘Here, taste this.’
Luis was pleased with his tone, the smoothness of his voice. He hadn’t missed a beat, covering his reaction to that ill-timed comment.
So what had he expected? That she would have come right out with a declaration of love? He’d have to be dreaming for that to happen. And he’d never thought of himself as a dreamer. All his life he’d lived on purely pragmatic terms—except once, when he’d fallen hopelessly and totally in love with this woman. Insanely in love, because he’d never fully recovered his wits since.
There, he’d admitted it to himself at last. Ever since that moment in York when he’d seen her coming towards him, dressed in that spectacular gown, he’d known he wasn’t over her. The sensation of being kicked in the gut he could explain away as a purely physical reaction—though his thoughts had been at the opposite extreme to
. But it was the absurd and impossible lifting of his heart that had told him he was in deep trouble.
Isabelle’s voice seemed to come from a long distance away, forcing him to drag his attention back to the moment.
‘I thought you’d like it.’
Did she know how the rich ruby colour of the wine had stained her mouth, emphasising the soft fullness of her lower lip? The memory of how sweet that mouth had tasted, how it had opened invitingly under his kiss, instantly triggered his body’s response so that he had to swing away to stare out of the window until he could get himself back under control.
But there was no escape. Even as he stared out at the darkened sky, he could still see her slender, feminine body in the pretty floral-print dress reflected in the glass before him.
‘And perhaps it might relax me. I was too nervous to drink very much at dinner.’
‘Or eat very much.’
He’d hardly touched his food himself, moving it about on his plate in a pretence at interest in it. But all his attention had been focused on the woman sitting opposite, her blonde hair
gleaming in the flickering light of the candles, her soft voice answering his parents’ questions with careful politeness.
‘You were every bit as bad as me.’
He hadn’t expected that and it brought him swinging round in shock, amber eyes flying straight to her face.
‘Oh, I noticed. You messed about, but put very little in your mouth.’
Her laugh was slightly shaky, no real warmth in it.
‘I don’t know what your parents must have thought of the two of us. I just hope they don’t think there was something wrong with the food and sack the cook.’
‘Don’t worry, the chef’s job is safe. They’ll think we’re both so completely lovesick that we’ve lost our appetites. And they’ll expect you to have been nervous, so they’ll understand.’
‘I wasn’t nervous! I never felt unsure with your mother and father. They couldn’t have been kinder and they made me feel right at home from the start. That was the problem.’
‘Isn’t it obvious? They’re lovely people; I don’t like deceiving them. In fact, now that I’ve met them, I hate it even more.’
‘Is this your way of trying to say you want out of this?’
Luis moved forward, picked up his own drink, trying to look as if the answer to his question didn’t matter a damn to him.
‘Not at all. If anything, now that I’ve met your father, I want to go through with it even more. He’s a lovely person, I took to him straight away and I’m so sorry that he’s ill.’
‘He likes you too.’
‘And that’s what makes this pretence so difficult. I just wish we could do this without deceiving him—and without all the fuss.’
The sudden shake in her voice, the way she sipped hastily at her drink, gave her away.
Her eyes looked like dark green ponds, deep and shadowed, as she glanced up at him.
‘Aren’t you? No, I suppose not. You must be used to all this—a wedding in the cathedral, pictures for the press. Do we really have to have a reception for all the village?’
‘It isn’t what I thought was ahead of me, remember. I always thought this would be Diego’s role in life. That as the eldest son and heir, he’d be the one going through the ceremonial wedding. But, yes, I’m afraid we do have to put up with it. They’ll expect it. It comes with the territory—marrying into a branch of the royal family, however small and obscure. Though in our case, it’s more like a twig.’
The tiny, half-hearted smile that flashed on and off her face left him in little doubt how she was feeling. Inwardly he cursed his mother’s over-enthusiasm for the wedding plans that had had her launching into them as soon as they had sat down for dinner. But then Dona Elvira had been looking forward to this moment for years. And she had no idea of the secret undercurrents running through the situation. The delicious cold gazpacho soup had barely been served before she had started a discussion on dresses and flowers and bridesmaids.
‘Hey, it’s not that bad.’
She swung away from him, headed for the small settee beside the huge stone fireplace. The fact that she sat staring fixedly into the empty hearth told its own story, and Luis saw that her teeth were worrying at her bottom lip.
He came to sit beside her, lifted an arm to put it round her shoulders, then changed his mind. A moment later he changed it back again and let his arm fall, his hand closing over the fine bones of her arm.
‘You’ll be fine. And I’ll be there with you.’
That brought her head round sharply, her expression startled.
‘Where the hell else would I be? After all, it’s my wedding too. And perhaps this will help make you feel better.’
Isabelle could only stare numbly as Luis pulled a box from his pocket and took out a spectacular diamond ring. She didn’t resist as he took her hand and pushed the ring onto the appropriate finger where it fitted perfectly.
‘How—how did you know my size?’
His mouth took on a cynical twist.
‘I remembered it. I have bought you a ring before, remember?’
How could she forget when the ring in question hung on a slender chain around her neck, nestling safe inside an identical but much larger one. The ring she had placed on his finger on their wedding day. The ring he had thrown at her in such a fury on the day he had walked out of her life.
‘I always promised you a proper engagement ring. We were in such a hurry to get married that you never had one before.’
‘And this is very definitely a
And then, when she was totally emotionally unready to do so, she recalled his comment at the door of the castle. ‘You know only too well how to make me happy,
,’ he had said. ‘And if you’re good, I’ll prove it to you tonight.’ And with a sickening lurch of her heart she knew why he was here.
‘So when do I start reimbursing you for this? Because I presume you expect me to earn it with some sort of payment in kind.’
Her question earned her a glare of angry reproof, one that made her shift uncomfortably on the brocade couch.
‘It comes with no conditions attached,’ he growled angrily. ‘I gave it to you because my parents would know something was amiss if I didn’t. They would expect my fiancée to be wearing a ring—I have provided one. Our story would not ring true otherwise.’
It was controlled, so emotionless that it stabbed at her vulnerable heart. It was impossible not to contrast his behaviour now with the ardent, impulsive proposal of marriage he had made just over two years before.
‘But our story isn’t true, is it, Luis? I don’t see why we can’t just tell them—’
The look on his face, the dark anger that blazed in his eyes, stopped her dead.
‘Tell them what,
? Do you really want me to explain to my parents why we split up in the first place? Shall I tell them that you were found in bed with another man only a few weeks after we were married?’
‘I told you—!’
‘I know what you told me, but forgive me…’ Luis laced the words with an acid that turned them into the exact opposite of any genuine attempt at an apology ‘…I prefer to believe the evidence of my own eyes.’
‘The evidence you were supposed to believe! It was a setup!’
Luis’s dark frown dried her mouth, stilled her impetuous tongue.
‘Was Rob Michaels in your bed?’ he questioned harshly, every bit the counsel for the prosecution.
It was barely a whisper but there was nothing she could say except the truth. She
woken up to find Rob in her bed, but she had had no idea how he had got there. Her memory of the night before had been decidedly hazy as the result of a very bad cold and some medication she had taken. And before she had had a chance to demand to know what he’d been doing there, the whole world had blown up in her face.
She shuddered miserably as her mind replayed snatches from that terrible night. The sound of a key in the lock. The door swinging open. The light snapping on.
And there, framed in the doorway, with a face as black as a thundercloud, bronze eyes molten in fury—Luis. Her husband.
‘And why is lying to my parents so very hard? After all, you have lied to me about much more important things.’