Counterfeit Bride(6)

By: Sara Craven

As the office door crashed open, she made herself smile.

'You've been long enough,' she began teasingly. 'Did you have to pick the beans personally or...'

She stopped short, her eyes widening in disbelief as she studied the dishevelled, woebegone figure in front of her.

'Teresita!' she gasped. 'Querida, what is it? Has something happened? Are you ill?' Her heart sank as she saw Teresita's brimming eyes. 'Cliff—oh, my God, has something happened to Cliff?'

'No,' Teresita said. 'He is well—he is fine—and I shall never see him again.' And she burst into hysterical tears.

Nicola had got her into a chair and was trying to calm her when Elaine returned with two paper cups of coffee.

'I guess I should have brought something stronger,' she remarked as she put the cups down on the nearest desk. 'What's wrong?'

'I wish I knew.' Nicola scrabbled through drawers until she came across a box of tissues in the last one. 'All she keeps saying is that she wants to die, and begging our Lady of Guadeloupe to take her.'

Elaine raised her brows. 'Clearly, she means business. Talk to her in Spanish, Nicky. She may make more sense that way.'

Nicola mustered her thoughts and said crisply 'Stop crying, Teresita. If we can help you we will, but first we must understand why you're so distressed.'

Teresita was still sobbing, but she was making an effort to control herself. When she spoke, Nicola could just make out the whispered words, 'I am to be married.’

'Yes, we know that.' Nicola passed her another tissue. 'To Cliff, just as soon as it can be arranged— so what is there to cry about?'

Teresita shook her head. 'It is not so.' Her voice was steadying, becoming more coherent. 'Today I visited the convent to pray in the chapel for Cliffs safe return. The Reverend Mother, she tells me there is a letter for me, and I see at once it is from my guardian, Don Luis. I read the letter. Madre de Dios, I read it and I wish only to die!'

'You mean he's forbidden you to marry Cliff?' Nicola asked sharply.

'He does not yet know that Cliff exists,' Teresita said bleakly. 'Always I have waited for the right time to tell him, because I feared his anger.'

'Will someone please fill me in on what's going on?' Elaine demanded plaintively.

'I wish I knew myself,' said Nicola, hurriedly outlining the gist of the conversation so far.

'It's obviously this letter,' Elaine said. She crouched beside Teresita's chair, taking her hands in hers. 'Hey, honey, what was in the letter? Does the mighty Don Luis want you to marry someone else? Is that it?'

Choking back a sob, Teresita nodded, and Elaine darted Nicola a sober glance which said 'I told you so' more clearly and loudly than any words could have done.

'Tomorrow,’ Teresita said. 'Tomorrow I must leave Mexico City and travel to Monterrey with Ramon. Later we shall be married.'

'You and this Ramon? Just like that?' Nicola demanded, horrified.

Teresita's eyes widened. 'Not Ramon, no. He is just the cousin of Don Luis. I met him once when I was a , child.'

'For heaven's sake,' Elaine muttered, and Nicola said hastily, 'I'm sorry, darling, we're trying to understand. But if Ramon isn't the bridegroom then who ...?'

'It is Don Luis.' Teresita's voice was flat.

Nicola muttered 'My God!' and Elaine's lips pursed in a silent whistle.

'Nice one, Don Luis,' she approved. 'Nothing like keeping the cash where it belongs—in the family.'

'It is what my father intended. I have always known this,' Teresita said tonelessly. 'But, as time passed, and he said nothing, I began to hope that it would never happen. A man so much older than myself, a man who has known so many women.' For a moment, a world of knowledge that the good sisters had never instilled showed on the heart-shaped face. 'I—I allowed myself to hope that perhaps he would choose elsewhere— perhaps even marry Carlota Garcia.'

'Just who is that?' Elaine asked.

Teresita gave a slight shrug. 'A—a friend of his. Her husband was a politician. She has been a widow now for several years, and their names have been coupled together many times. A girl—one of the boarders at the convent—told me it was known that she was his— amiga. She said it was impossible that he would marry me because I was too much of a child for him, accustomed as he is to women of the world.'

Disgust rose bitterly in Nicola. Not just elderly and arrogant, but mercenary and a womaniser into the bargain.

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