Counterfeit Bride(5)

By: Sara Craven

Cliff had been a constant visitor at the apartment after Teresita moved in. He had adapted without apparent difficulty to the demands of an old-fashioned courtship, bringing gifts—bottles of wine, bunches of flowers, and once even a singing bird in a cage. Teresita sang too, all round the apartment, small happy songs betokening the inner radiance which showed in her shining eyes and flushed cheeks.

That was how love should be, Nicola thought, bringing its own certainty and security, imposing its welcome obligations. Perhaps it was the constant exposure to Teresita's transparent happiness which was making her so restless. Not that there'd been much radiance about lately, she reminded herself drily. Cliff had been sent to Chicago for a few weeks and in his absence Teresita had drooped like a neglected flower. But he was due to return during the next few days, and Nicola was sure they would be announcing their engagement at the very least as soon as he came back.

That was if Teresita managed to break the news to her guardian, the remote and austere Don Luis Alvarado de Montalba. She seemed very much in awe of him, reluctant even to mention his name, but Nicola had still gleaned a certain amount of information about him.

He was wealthy and powerful, that went without saying. At one time, his family had owned vast cattle estates in the north, but later they had begun to diversify, to invest in industry and in fruit and coffee plantations, apparently foreseeing the time when the huge ranches would be broken up into smaller units and the landowners' monopolies broken.

Not that any government-inspired reforms seemed to have made a great deal of difference to the Montalbas, she thought. They still owned the ranch, although its size had been reduced, as well as a town house in Monterrey where much of their industrial interest was concentrated, and a luxurious villa near Acapulco. Nicola gathered that Teresita's father had been a business colleague of Don Luis, and this was why she had been assigned to his guardianship after her parents had been tragically drowned in a Slash-flood some years before.

Clearly, his guardianship operated more on a financial and business level than a personal one. Teresita had admitted candidly that it was over a year since he had visited her, and she seemed more relieved than otherwise at this state of affairs.

Clearly he was the type of aloof and imposing grandee who would be incapable of putting a young girl at her ease, Nicola thought. Teresita always behaved as if even to talk about him was a form of lese-majeste.

Nicola could just picture him—elderly with heavy moustaches, perhaps even a beard, probably overweight, pompous and arrogant. She hoped fervently that Elaine was wrong and he wouldn't make an attempt to interfere in Teresita's happiness. There was no reason why he should, she thought. Cliff was no fortune hunter, even if he didn't have the sort of wealth that the Montalba family had at its disposal.

She fastened the last carton, sealed and labelled it, then sat back on her heels with a sigh.

'So that's done. I could murder a cup of coffee. Do you think the machine's still working?'

'If so it's the only thing in the building that is, apart from us,' said Elaine. 'In my next life, I'm coming back as a boss. You finish up here, and I'll go see about this coffee.'

She was gone for some time, and Nicola guessed that the machine, never enthusiastic about its function at the best of times, had finally given up the ghost and that Elaine had called to buy coffee at the small restaurant a few doors away.

She wandered over to the window and stood looking down into the square. The noise of the traffic seemed muted in the midday heat and from the street below she could hear the plaintive strains of a barrel-organ. The organ-grinder was there most days, and she knew his repertoire almost by heart, but today the jangling notes seemed to hold an extra poignancy, and she felt unbidden tears start to her eyes.

She was being a fool she told herself. What had she got to cry about? She'd had a marvellous time in Mexico City, and within a few days she would be embarking on the holiday of a lifetime. Unlike Elaine she had always been fascinated by the history of the New World, and her tour had been carefully planned to take in as many of the great archeological sites as possible. She found herself saying some of the names under her breath— Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza. Great pyramids, towering temples, ancient pagan gods—she'd dreamed of such things, and soon, very soon, all her dreams would come true. So why in hell was she standing here snivelling? She heard the outer door open and slam in the corridor, and turned hastily, smearing the tears from her face with clumsy fingers, hoping that Elaine would not notice or be too tactful to comment.

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