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Authors: Kate Walker

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‘I never…’

Her face was pale, her green eyes huge above colourless cheeks. He had the fight of his life with himself not to take her in his arms and tell her it was all right, that it didn’t matter.

He forced himself to continue.

‘Did you not swear to me that you loved me more than life itself? That you could never imagine yourself with anyone else, loving anyone else…’

His voice lowered, became a deadly, vindictive hiss.

‘Sleeping with anyone else.’

It was crueller than any slap in the face. All the more so because it had been delivered in such a quiet, controlled voice. But then she looked into his eyes and to her shock it was not anger or cruelty that she saw there, but the soul-deep pain of betrayal.

‘I’ve
told
you…’

‘I know what you’ve told me. But until you can come up with something better than, “It was a set-up,” I’m sorry, but I cannot believe you.’

The last thing he sounded was sorry, Isabelle reflected miserably. Instead his tone was icily cold, laced with a bitter control she couldn’t see her way past. Unable to bear the way that the same dark feeling showed in his gaze, she pressed her hands to her face for a moment, covering her own eyes with them.

‘I had a heavy cold,’ she said from behind her concealing fingers, putting all the conviction she could muster into the words, willing him to believe them. ‘Catalina gave me something for it and I went to bed early. The next thing I knew was when I woke up when you came into the room.’

‘A room that was locked from the inside. I had to go down to Reception and get the master key.’

‘Rob must have locked it.’

‘And how did he get inside in the first place?’

‘I don’t know!’

Isabelle snatched her hands away from her face, flinging them out in a wild gesture to emphasise her words.

‘I
don’t know
.’

It wasn’t enough. She could read it in his dark, shuttered face, the way his eyes were hooded under half-closed lids. He didn’t believe her. And really, deep down, she knew she couldn’t blame him.

Would
she
have believed
him
if the positions had been reversed? If she had been the one coming home late from a long trip to London to see her brother and she had walked in on Luis, naked, in bed with someone else—with Catalina, for example. Would he have been able to convince her that it was all perfectly innocent? That he had fallen asleep alone and woken up to find the other woman in his bed?

It sounded impossible and totally unbelievable. And she knew that she would have reacted just as he had done. That she would have walked away in a black fury of pain and betrayal and never looked back.

‘Luis, we’d had a row…’

‘I know what had happened. You do not have to remind me. We argued and so—so what? You punished me by sleeping with the first man who asked?’

‘You can’t believe that!’

No, Luis admitted privately, she was right, damn it! He couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t then and he couldn’t now. If anyone had asked him, he would have sworn on his life that Isabelle loved him. That she would always be faithful. That was why finding her with Michaels had hit him so hard that he had thought he would go crazy, do something totally unforgivable, if he hadn’t got out of there at once.

‘It was what you threatened to do,’ he said dully. ‘And Rob Michaels had been sniffing around you for weeks.’

Isabelle winced away from his words, and the pain she could hear behind them, wishing she could deny the truth, but knowing that she could not.

‘It was an empty threat. I never meant it. Certainly not like that. I was angry—hurt. It was my birthday, Luis.’

Her tone pleaded for understanding.

‘My first birthday with you and you spent it away from me.’

‘I had no choice; you knew that. My father was only in London for that day. I had to see him to try to bridge some of the distance that had come between us. I had no other opportunity.’

She understood that now, Isabelle admitted to herself, but
then, barely twenty-one, and still in the throes of the first obsessive, possessive love for her new husband, she had been unwilling to share him with anyone, even his family. She had insisted he stay with her—or at least take her with him. And when he had refused she had lost her temper.

‘All right,
go
!’ she had flung at him, blind to the danger signs of his tightly set mouth, the tension in his hard jaw, the muscle that had flickered just above it. ‘Go if you want, and leave me on my own! But don’t expect me to stay on my own! If you won’t be with me on my birthday, I’ll find someone else who will.’

It had been a hollow threat, bad-tempered, childish and petulant, and she had never dreamed that it might rebound on her so appallingly, until it had been too late.

‘I can see that now, Luis,’ she admitted miserably. ‘And I was very stupid, very selfish—but that’s all I was. Please don’t hate me for being stupid.’

‘I don’t.’

He didn’t hate her.

Dios
, didn’t she know that he could never
hate
her? That was the reason she could get to him so badly. The reason why he’d had to come to England when he’d got that letter. He’d tried to convince himself that he never wanted to see her again, but the truth was that he had never felt anything so terrible as the fear that he might lose her for good. And he’d endured that fear twice now.

‘Why do you think you are here? I forgave you—’

‘Forgave!’

Isabelle couldn’t believe what she was hearing and her distress was a savage wound in her heart as she faced the way her hopes had been lifted, only to be dashed right down in the next second. She could hardly bear to look into his face, to see the way he had stiffened, the golden eyes narrowing, his jaw setting hard and tight.

How could he have taken her so close to the future she had dreamed of and then snatched it away again? She felt as if she had been given a glimpse of heaven, only to have the door slammed right in her face.

‘I didn’t want
forgiveness
for something I didn’t do! I wanted trust! The sort of trust that doesn’t need proof—that believes in me completely and totally. And if you can’t give me that, then our marriage has no future and we might just as well forget the whole thing!’

That got through to him. It slashed straight through everything else he had been feeling, stabbed straight to the heart. And in that moment he knew that, two years before, he had made the worst, most appalling mistake of his life.

There had always been something he had kept coming back to, something he hadn’t been able to quite put his finger on, and it had disturbed him, nagged at him throughout the past two years. Now he knew he wouldn’t be able to rest until he’d cleared the whole matter up. And if he had been wrong, then he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to Isabelle.

‘I don’t want to forget it,’ he muttered harshly.

Isabelle didn’t know how to take that.

‘Oh, Luis,
mi marido, mi amor
…’

‘No!’

He couldn’t bear those words. Not now. Not when he feared that he had wronged her so badly.

Pushing himself to his feet, he swung halfway across the room, needing to put a physical distance between them that matched the emotional one he had let grow because of his stupid hurt pride.

‘Don’t call me that. Not now.’

Isabelle knew her mistake as soon as the words had left her lips, and desperately, hopelessly, wished them back, knowing there was no chance of salvation.

Beside her she had felt Luis’s hard length tense, freezing in shock, and then, agonisingly, the immediate, inevitable swift withdrawal, the movement away that spelled out his rejection, tearing her heart in two.

‘Luis,
mi marido, mi amor
…’ The first few words of Spanish he had taught her. The most important words, he had said. If she never learned any other phrases, then these would
do. They would say all she ever needed to say to keep him happy.

But one night she had used those words and known they would never have the same effect again. That even if she handed her heart to him at the same time, he would never, ever believe that she loved him.

They had been the last words she had shouted after him on that dreadful night when he had arrived back unexpectedly and found her and Rob, in bed together. She had tried to explain but he had turned from her as he was doing now, his eyes dark with rejection. And so she had screamed the only words she had thought might bring him back.

But they had had as little effect as they were having now. His face had closed up, steel shutters seeming to slam shut behind his eyes, cutting him off from her completely. And he had walked out of her life—for good, it had seemed.

The words swung round and round in Luis’s head, gaining a new and terrible bitterness with every repetition.

My husband, my love… Once he had longed to hear her say them as often as she could. He would have sworn that he would never grow tired of them. That he could never hear anything that would have made him happier.

Until one bitter dawn when he had heard her shout them after him down a long, shadowy hotel corridor as he’d walked away from the terrible sight of her and her lover in bed together.

He hadn’t been able to bear to stay a second longer then. He had had to get away—fast—just as he had to now. If he stayed, then he would surely give himself away completely, by letting her know just how he was feeling. And the truth was that he was such a mess, such a knot of tangled emotions deep inside, that he didn’t know what to say to her.

‘L-Luis…’ Isabelle tried, but her voice failed her completely, shrivelling into nothing as he turned back to her and she saw the tightness of every muscle in his face, the blank, opaque eyes.


Perdón
,’ he said stiffly. ‘Forgive me, but I cannot…’

My husband, my love
. But if
he
had loved her enough he would have stayed. He would have listened. He would have trusted.

He had done no such thing. He had failed her. And now he would have to live with his conscience for having wronged her so badly.

‘You were right, Isabella,’ he went on harshly. ‘Perhaps we should forget the whole thing. I will not trouble you again.’

Not until he could prove to her that he believed in her the way she needed him to.

‘But, Luis…’ Isabelle began, but she was speaking to empty air.

Without even another glance in her direction, Luis had marched from the room and she could only stare in silent desperation as the door swung to behind him.

‘Forgive me, but I cannot…’ His cold, stiff words seemed to hang in the air, freezing, like the cruel hand that gripped her heart.

‘I cannot…’ What? If he could never forget what had happened, then what possible hope of a future was there?

CHAPTER SIX

‘A
LL
alone, my dear?’

‘What?’

Isabelle looked up in surprise, struggling to drag herself into the present as Luis’s father came towards her along the stone-flagged terrace.

‘Is that son of mine neglecting you?’

‘He—he had business to attend to. Something about one of the vineyards.’

It was an excuse that would do as well as any other, she told herself. It was the one Luis had used to explain his absences at first.

But lately he had stopped doing even that. He had just headed out at the start of the day, some mornings even before she was awake, and he was more often than not very late back.

‘The vineyards can take care of themselves.’ The duke frowned into the sun. ‘Luis should be here.’

‘He will be,’ Isabelle put in hastily, hoping she sounded more confident than she actually felt. ‘I think he just wants to make sure that everything is in order before we leave on our honeymoon.’

A honeymoon that was now not so far away. The days since she had come to Spain had flashed by so fast that she could hardly believe she had been here a month or more now. Every day had been taken up with some sort of planning or preparation for the wedding so that she had barely had time to think.

And if she was honest, she’d been grateful for the endless round of fittings, consultations, coffee mornings, visits to relatives that had filled her time and taken her away from Luis’s disturbing absences and his even more disturbing presence in the brief times he had actually spent in the castle.

‘How are you feeling today?’

Don Alfonso always looked pale, and his tall frame hadn’t an ounce of spare flesh on it. But the bronze eyes that were so like his son’s were bright and alert these days, his energy belying his state of health.

‘I feel fine,’ he assured her now, a smile lighting up his face. ‘So I was wondering if you’d like that history lesson now.’

‘The tour of the gallery?’ Isabelle was already on her feet. ‘I’d love to.’

It was something that she and the duke had discussed some days before. From the first, Isabelle had been fascinated by the long gallery of portraits of the de Silva family, ancestors of Luis, long-ago dukes and duchesses, dating right back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition. She had wanted to learn more about them, but the time had never been quite right.

The afternoon passed in total absorption. As Don Alfonso had said, this was a history lesson, but the characters involved were his family. Luis’s family. Her family by marriage now. And for the first time she had a real sense of how Luis must feel, with the weight of all that lineage behind him.

‘It must be amazing to know that you have ancestors who were brothers or sisters of kings,’ she said when a couple of hours later they made their way back down the long, sweeping stone staircase into the main hall again.

‘It’s an honour and a responsibility,’ the duke added sombrely. ‘Our family has great wealth but we also owe a great deal to our heritage and should never treat it lightly.’

‘Living here must make you feel like that. Knowing that this castle has been in the family for so many hundreds of years.’

‘And it will be into the future too. That has always been my
dream. That is why in our family marriage and children are so important. When Diego died, I thought…’

He caught himself up, shaking his head, the golden eyes dimmed for a moment, but then he reached for Isabelle’s hand and squeezed it gently.

‘But your marriage to Luis will ensure that our line will go on. Your children will inherit the dukedom. Yours and Luis’s.’

The words caught Isabelle on the raw, stirring uncomfortable memories of yet another reason for her distress over the past weeks. Even the blazing passion that had flared between herself and Luis on that first night in York seemed to have died. He hadn’t even come to her room, hadn’t shared her bed since they had arrived.

There was a discreet cough behind them, a maid trying to get their attention.

‘Don Alfonso… You have a visitor. Señorita del Bosque.’

‘Catalina? I thought she was in America.’

Something in the way the older man said the name, his expression as he looked towards the room the maid had indicated, betrayed the way he was feeling. He would never admit to being tired, but clearly he had had enough.

‘Shall I see what she wants?’ Isabelle suggested. ‘I met Catalina once—back in England. I’ll talk to her if you like.’

Her reward was another of those charming, warm smiles that twisted in her heart with the memories they revived. Memories of the days when she had first met Luis. When his smile had been so swift and so delightful, so easily won.

‘If you wouldn’t mind, my dear. I would appreciate it.’

‘Why are you sitting here in the dark?’

Luis’s voice coincided with the snapping on of the light, startling Isabelle so that she jumped nervously, wide green eyes turning to where he stood in the doorway.

‘I—I was thinking.’

She looked distant, Luis thought, as if her mind was somewhere else. And there was something in the way she sat, a lack
of colour in her cheeks, the unsmiling mouth, that made him tense instinctively. He could almost scent trouble in the air but he had no idea where it came from.

‘Thinking about what?’

‘The wedding.’

It was the easy answer because she wasn’t yet ready to tell him the truth. What she had thought would simply be a social chat with Catalina had turned into something that had rocked her whole world. Something she didn’t yet know how to handle. For one thing, she needed to be sure, to know that it was actually fact. And to do that, she had to test the water first.

‘Oh, that.’

He had thought it would be more. The realisation that that was all it was should have relaxed him, but there was still something about the atmosphere in the room that did nothing to ease his unsettled frame of mind.

‘So, what’s been on your busy schedule today?’

Luis strolled into the room and settled himself in the chair opposite Isabelle, leaning back tiredly.

‘Did you have another fitting for the wedding dress of the year? Or perhaps an important meeting to decide about the colour of flowers?’

‘Actually, today I didn’t have anything planned. Most things are just about in hand.’

Isabelle was frankly surprised by the bite in Luis’s voice. Anyone would have thought that he was—
jealous
was the word that sprang to mind. But that couldn’t possibly be true.

‘Good. Then perhaps in that case you might like to consider having lunch with me tomorrow? Maybe even spending the day together?’

‘Well—yes—if that’s what you want.’

If his mood had surprised her, then this invitation rocked her even more. It broke into the routine they had established. The routine that she had thought worked well. The routine that she believed was the way Luis wanted to run things.

After lying awake late into the long, lonely hours before dawn on her first night in the castle, after Luis had walked out on her, she had finally come to a decision. There was only one way that she could handle this situation. One way that she could behave so that she could get through the days being the wife Luis wanted and still keep any sort of hold on her sanity and her feelings.

She was going to have to pretend. She was going to have to put on the act of her life and draw on every last ounce of her dramatic ability and training if she was to be in the least bit convincing.

She would have to play the newly engaged fiancée, still starry-eyed in the first throes of love. The prospective bride who had every happiness to look forward to and who was planning the wedding of her dreams with heartfelt delight, while all the time she knew that the man she loved felt nothing for her but the dark physical passion that had ensnared both of them on the night he had come to find her in York.

And she had thought that she might just manage that. Or at least she had done, until today.

Until Catalina had appeared and let her in on a couple of bitterly painful truths.

‘It isn’t a matter of what I want,’ Luis growled. ‘More that my parents are hardly going to believe we’re hopelessly in love with each other if we rarely spend as much as half an hour in each other’s company except at mealtimes.’

‘You’re the one who’s always out— “on business”,’ Isabelle pointed out. ‘And there’s a lot to do to plan a wedding—especially the sort of wedding your mother has in mind.’

‘It has seemed to be the only thing you think about.’

It had been impossible to get near her, in fact, Luis thought. Looking back over the past three weeks, it seemed she had been almost constantly occupied, dashing here to choose table decorations, or there to look at flowers.

She had been perfectly polite and pleasant, but somehow ethereal. Being with her had been like trying to grab hold of a
soap bubble. Just when he thought he had it in his hands it would burst and disintegrate into nothing.

They barely spoke at all. At least not about anything important. And because he had vowed that he wouldn’t touch her until he believed he had the right, all other forms of communication were closed to them too.

‘Your mother wants everything to be perfect.’

‘I know.’

Luis’s sigh was low, despondent, and his bronze eyes clouded as he stared at the floor.

‘She’s putting her heart and soul into this wedding because it will be the only one,’ he said, unknowingly reviving memories of the way the duke had spoken earlier. ‘She always dreamed of planning Diego’s wedding too.’

‘That must be hard for all of you.’

Something had put an edge into her voice, drawing his frowning gaze to her face, but she simply returned his look with a blank one of her own as she continued.

‘I know how you felt about your brother. It must have been a terrible day for you all when he died.’

‘I thought my father would never recover.’

Luis raked his free hand through the black silk of his hair, the shiny black strands catching the sunlight as they fell back over his high forehead.

‘Since then I’ve felt I’ve had to be both sons for him.’

‘He’s looked better recently. Brighter and happier.’

‘He sees the hope of a future and that gives him something to keep going for. You’ve done that for him.’

‘Not just me—it’s both of us together. And the wedding.’

She flexed shoulders that were tight with tension and closed her eyes briefly against the sting of tears. She would have given the world not to believe what Catalina had told her, but with every word that Luis spoke the dread grew darker, her fears stronger that the Spanish woman had spoken nothing but the truth.

‘You’re not enjoying it?’ Luis had misinterpreted the
reasons for her low spirits. ‘I would have thought that for any woman the chance to have a wedding dress specially designed by a Paris couturier, a wedding in a cathedral, would be like a dream come true.’

The dream come true, Isabelle reflected sadly, would be to know that the man she was marrying loved her as much as she loved him. With that, the simplest, most inexpensive wedding would be perfect, and without it all the money in the world couldn’t provide compensation for what was missing.

‘For some people, perhaps,’ she said slowly, keeping her eyes lowered so as not to have to look into his darkly devastating face. ‘But if you want to know the truth, then I much preferred our first wedding in that little chapel in York.’

‘Walking to the church in the rain?’ Frank disbelief rang in Luis’s voice, stilling the restless movement of Isabelle’s hand on the arm of her chair.

‘It was only a little shower. Not even a drizzle really.’

And she had been so happy that she hadn’t noticed the weather at all. The sky might have been dull and grey but in her heart there had been nothing but sunshine and her feet had felt as if they weren’t touching the ground, as if she were floating down the damp pavements towards her destiny.

‘And I was so thrilled when I found that dress in a boutique sale. What?’ she asked in some surprise when his head came up, bronze eyes fixed on her face.

‘I was just remembering how wonderful you looked in it,’ Luis told her, his voice rough as if it came from a painfully dry throat. ‘So beautiful, so fresh and innocent.’

Even when he had thought he hated her, he had never been able to erase from his mind the memory of that moment when he had turned and seen her walking down the aisle of the tiny chapel, wearing the simple white cotton dress, carrying a single rose by way of a bouquet. Her golden hair had gleamed in a soft halo around her glowing face, her lips had been curved into a smile of pure delight, and her eyes had never looked so brilliant, shining a wonderful, emerald green.

‘Your Paris designer is going to have to work hard to do any better.’

‘I don’t think he’ll do better—it’ll just be different. In the same way that this reception for five hundred will be so different from…’

‘From the picnic by the river?’ Luis supplied when, overcome by memory, she couldn’t supply the words. ‘That was something else.’

‘At—at least the sun had come out by then.’

The darkness in his eyes was tying her nerves into tight, painful knots. Looking into his handsome face now, she was suddenly taken back to that day, remembering the happiness, the hope for the future, she had felt then.

‘I couldn’t believe my luck,’ Luis went on, his voice growing even deeper on each word. ‘I kept looking across at you and thinking— She’s my wife. That’s
my wife
.’

Abruptly his expression changed, a deep frown bringing his black brows together.

‘Should I have made it different for you, Isabella? Should I have swallowed my pride, forgotten the arguments I’d had with my father and brought you here, married you…’

‘In a wedding like the one we’re having now? Do you want the truth, Luis?’

The memory of Catalina’s words that afternoon came back to haunt her, stiffening her pride and tightening her voice.

‘Because if you do, then the answer is no. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I loved you so much then. Couldn’t have been happier… This wedding can never be the same. And neither can our marriage.’

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