Counterfeit Bride(9)

By: Sara Craven

He walked forward, strong shoulders, lean hips and long legs encased in a lightweight but very expensive suit. His black silk shirt was open at the throat, allowing a glimpse of smooth brown chest.

He was smiling faintly, and Nicola thought, her hackles rising, that he was clearly under no illusion about his effect on women.

'Señorita.' He stood at the foot of the steps and looked up at her rather enquiringly.

'I am Teresita Dominguez, señor,' she said coldly. 'And you are late.'

Now that the words were uttered, and the charade begun, it was somehow easier.

If Don Luis had informed his cousin that his future wife was a submissive doormat of a girl who would speak when spoken to, then Don Ramon de Costanza had just had the shock of his life, she thought with satisfaction. She was pleased to see that he did look taken aback.

'My apologies, Señorita Dominguez. I was detained. And of course I could not know—I was not warned what a vision of loveliness awaited me.'

No one warned me about you either, she thought silently. And Don Luis must be off his head to let you out of your cage to prowl round the girl he's going to marry, cousin or no cousin.

She primmed her mouth disapprovingly as he came up the steps to her side. 'Don Ramon, must I remind you who I am?'

'Indeed no, señorita. You are the novia of Don Luis Alvarado de Montalba, the most fortunate man in Mexico. Welcome to our family, Teresita—if I may call you that?' He lifted her hand as if to kiss it lightly, then at the last moment turned it over, and brushed his mouth swiftly and sensuously across the palm instead.

'Señor.' Nicola snatched her hand away, aware that she did not have to pretend the note of shock in her voice. Her flesh tingled as if it had been in contact with a live electric current. 'I hope I do not have to inform Don Luis of your behaviour.'

'Forgive me.' He didn't sound particularly repentant. 'I forgot myself. You will have nothing further to complain of in my conduct, I swear. Will you allow me to put your cases in the car?'

She assented with a cool nod, and followed him down the steps, her heart still thumping.

'And your bag?'

She swallowed, shaking her head and taking a firm hold on the strap.

'I prefer to keep it with me.'

He surveyed the bag in silence for a moment. 'It lacks the charm and elegance of the rest of your appearance.'

'It has sentimental value,' she said shortly.

'I'm glad it has something,' he said smoothly. The chauffeur was holding the rear door open, and she climbed in, taking pains to do so without displaying too much leg. The door was shut and she saw her travelling companion detain the man with a hand on his arm and tell him something which clearly caused the chauffeur some surprise before he nodded and turned away.

The next minute Ramon came round and also got in the back of the car beside her. She saw the chauffeur watching covertly in the mirror, his face deliberately stolid and expressionless.

Keep your eyes on that mirror, amigo, she addressed him silently, and if he puts a hand on me anywhere, call in the army.

She leaned back in her seat, forcing herself to relax, reminding herself that she was occupying a very spacious, luxurious air-conditioned vehicle, and the fact that it felt crowded was purely imaginary.

The car began to move, and she felt tiny beads of perspiration break out on her top lip. They were on their way. So far so good, she thought, then stole a glance at her travelling companion and realised that there was absolutely no room for complacency on this journey. And she had promised Teresita that she would use delaying tactics, and make it last as long as possible. She swallowed, and turned her attention as resolutely as possible to the scenery outside the car.

They had been travelling for over half an hour when he said, 'You are very quiet.'

It was her chance. She produced a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her bag, and dabbed her lips with it.

'I am not a good traveller, Don Ramon. You must excuse me.’

She hiccuped realistically, and settled further into her corner of the seat, relishing the slightly alarmed expression on his face. She closed her eyes and pretended to doze, and eventually pretence was overtaken by reality, and, lulled by the smooth motion of the car, she slept.

She awoke with a start some time later. Her eyes flew open and she saw that he was watching her, the dark face curiously hard and speculative. As she looked at him uncertainly, the expression faded, and there was nothing but that former charm.

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