The Valquez Bride

Harlequin Presents

Series: The Argentinian Playboys

Available: 10/01/2014

ISBN-10: 9780373132836

ASIN: B00JZFPEOS

A wedding night she’ll never forget!

Untouched Theodora Marlstone always wanted the fairy-tale wedding—a white dress and an adoring groom. Instead she’s walking up the aisle toward a marriage of convenience to outrageously attractive Argentinean Alejandro Valquez! He promises raw sensuality, not devotion, but thanks to her father’s will, Teddy must say “I do”….

Alejandro never wanted a wife, but his buttoned-up bride is a delicious present just waiting to be unwrapped. Beneath the white silk lies a woman who exceeds his wildest imagination, and it’s clear that this union will burn the very paper it’s written on!

An Excerpt from The Valquez Bride

The one word that stood out on Teddy’s father’s will started with M but it wasn’t money. She looked at the family lawyer in open-mouthed alarm. ‘Marriage?’

Benson nodded gravely. ‘I’m afraid so. Within a month. Otherwise, your second cousin Hugo will inherit the lot—every property, stock and share, including Marlstone Manor.’

‘But that can’t be right!’ Teddy gripped the arms of the chair so tightly her fingers dug into the leather arms like claws. ‘Dad told me this place was mine. He told me the day before he died. He said I would always have this roof over my head.’

‘Your father changed his will the month before he was diagnosed with cancer,’ the lawyer said. ‘It was as if he’d known he didn’t have much time left and wanted to get his affairs in order.’

His affairs?

It was her home! That was her affair. It was her life! It was her safety and security. How could her father hand it over to her cousin, who hadn’t even visited him once during his illness?

Teddy’s heart was galloping so fast and so hard she could feel the blood beating in every one of her fingertips. Shock chilled and chugged through her body like a flow of ice. She blinked to clear her vision. What sort of nightmare was this? Was she really sitting in the library with her father’s lawyer having this crazy conversation?

It had to be a mistake.

For the last five months she had nursed her father through his pancreatic cancer and stayed with him and held his hand as he finally slipped away. It was the only time she had felt close to him. During those last days he had shared snippets of his childhood previously unknown to her. It had explained so much about his difficult personality. The way he had constantly found fault with her. How he was so impossible to please. How he was such a control freak who never let her have a say in things. Towards the end she had found a space in her heart to forgive him. She had even told him she loved him. Something she had vowed she would never do.

And yet the whole time he had been intent on tricking her?

Betraying her?

She swallowed tightly, annoyed at the knotty lump of hurt that was lodged in her throat like an oversized walnut. Why had she fallen for it? Why had she let her father do that to her? He had made her feel safe and then whipped the rug of security out from under her. Why hadn’t she seen it coming? Why had she been so…so stupid to fall for that happy families routine?

‘My father led me to believe Marlstone would always be mine.’ Teddy tried to speak clearly and steadily even though her emotions were tumbling and twisting inside her chest like clothes spinning in a dryer set on too fast a speed. ‘Why would he have changed his mind? Surely I don’t have to be married in order to inherit what should be automatically mine? That’s totally outrageous!’

The lawyer tapped the legal document with the pen he was holding. ‘It’s a little more specific than that…’ He paused for a beat as if he was trying to find a way to say his next words without causing her more stress. ‘Your father has also nominated the groom.’

Shock opened a broad hand inside her belly and grabbed at her intestines. Nominated the— ‘What?’

He pushed the document towards her. ‘He wants you to marry Alejandro Valquez.’

Teddy looked at the name. Saw the man in her mind. Felt the bottom of her spine loosen as she pictured that imposingly tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed playboy with the enigmatic smile of a fallen angel. The man women the world over flocked around like bees to top shelf pollen. She felt her cheeks heat up as if twin furnaces had been lit beneath her skin. This had to be a joke. Her father couldn’t possibly be so cruel. To force her to marry someone so out of her league it would make her a laughing stock the moment it was announced. The press would mock her. They would ridicule her mercilessly. No one would believe it for a second. Alejandro Valquez and her? She could already see the headlines: Lame Lady of the Manor Lands Argentinian Playboy in Money Match Marriage.

What had she done to deserve this? Was this her father’s way of showing his disgust for her disability? To make her a target of ridicule and derision? To be the butt of puerile bar room jokes for the next decade?

Teddy took a steadying breath, slowly bringing her gaze back up to the lawyer’s. She had to keep cool. There had to be a way to solve this. It wasn’t going to help things by panicking and getting hysterical. That wasn’t her way. Cool and composed was her modus operandi, even though below the surface her nerves were stretched to snapping point. ‘Is there any way of…getting around it?’

‘Not if you want to retain full ownership and occupancy of Marlstone Manor.’

She looked out of the library windows to the gardens and the rolling fields beyond. The green folded valleys with their borders of thick hedgerows, the curve of the river that flowed through the forest that fringed the upper boundary. The still and silent silver sheet of the lake, the sycamore, beech and yew trees that had stood for centuries while life moved on around them.

The Wiltshire mansion and its surrounding estate was her home. It was her inspiration for her work as a children’s book illustrator. Her botanical drawings with their whimsical themes were inspired by her surroundings.

Her studio was here.

Her home was here.

Her sanctuary was here.

How could she lose it? How could she be turfed out as if she was nothing more than a leaseholder? What was her father thinking?

Her stomach knotted again.

Hadn’t he cared about her at all?

Hadn’t he known how much she loathed men like Alejandro Valquez? Alejandro was a disgustingly rich and dashingly handsome playboy who—like his younger brother Luiz—only ever dated supermodels and film stars. Beautiful women. Perfect women.

Alejandro hadn’t noticed her in the past. Girls like her were invisible to men like him. His coal-black gaze had looked straight through her when he’d been introduced to her at a polo event her father had taken her to years ago.

Alejandro had barely mouthed a word of greeting before he had spied a tall, slim blonde beauty standing behind her, who soon after became his fiancée. Their whirlwind affair had been in the press for weeks—for months—until his fiancée, supermodel Mercedes Delgado, called off their wedding at the last minute.

What was her father playing at in forcing the hand of a man who could choose any woman he liked? What possible reason could her father have for wanting such an alliance, even if it was only temporary?

Teddy had never been close to her father. He had never disguised the fact he would have preferred a son to a daughter. Since her childhood he had found fault with her for everything she said or did, and yet, like all little girls, she had continued to love him. To seek his approval. To win him over. It had taken her years to realise he had been too obsessed with work and winning every corporate battle to care about her. He hadn’t had time for her, even though he had gone to extreme lengths to secure custody of her after the divorce from her mother. Gaining custody of her had been another battle to win. Another victory.

Was this his way of punishing her for never forgiving him for the way he had driven her mother to an early grave? Or had he been so ashamed of his only daughter living such a quiet spinsterish life he had decided to do something about it by tying her to a man she had no possible chance of attracting any other way?

The Valquez name was synonymous with wealth and prestige. The playboy polo set who partied as hard as they played. If and when the fast-living brothers decided to marry, it certainly wouldn’t be to someone like her.

Teddy brought her gaze back to the lawyer’s. ‘What’s in this for Alejandro? Why would he agree to such an arrangement?’

‘Your father bought some acreage off Alejandro’s father in Argentina twenty years ago to relieve financial pressure on the family after Paco Valquez suffered a polo accident and became a quadriplegic,’ Benson said. ‘Your father kept it in his possession all this time, even though Alejandro has made numerous offers to buy it back. The deeds of the property will be handed over to him upon your marriage.’

She was being exchanged for property? Handed over like a trophy? Like goods and chattels? How could her father do this to her? This wasn’t the Regency period. This was the twenty-first century. Women were supposed to choose their own husbands.

To fall in love.

To be loved back.

Teddy had secretly dreamed of having the fairy tale since her parents divorced so acrimoniously when she was seven. She believed in the power of love even though she hadn’t seen it modelled or experienced it herself. People were supposed to fall in love and stay in love. Not marry each other for prestige or property or financial gain.

How could she ignore the deepest yearnings of her heart to marry for any other reason than love? It would compromise every value she held dear. She refused to turn into a version of her mother, marrying a man for the social status and security he could give her and then suffering the shame of having everyone laugh at her when it all came unstuck.

There had to be a way out of this.

Teddy looked at the lawyer again. ‘What does Alejandro think about this? Has he been told?’

‘He is in what I would describe as rather a bind,’ the lawyer said.

‘Meaning?’

‘Your father has set things up so that if Alejandro refuses to marry you the property he wants will be sold.’

‘But surely a man with his sort of wealth could buy it when it goes on the market?’

The lawyer shook his head. ‘I’m afraid that is not possible. Your father has strictly stated that the property will be sold to a developer if Alejandro refuses to comply with the terms of the will. A local developer has already shown some interest and will snap up the property in a heartbeat as soon as it’s released. I would imagine Alejandro wouldn’t relinquish that land lightly, even if it meant marrying a perfect stranger. Looking at it like that, it’s a win-win for both of you.’

Teddy’s bile rose like frothing acid. Did her father’s lawyer—like everyone else—think she had no hope of finding a husband any other way? She pulled her shoulders back and gave the lawyer one of her trademark arctic looks. ‘You can tell Señor Valquez there is no possible circumstance I can think of where I would ever agree to marry him.’

*

‘Are you kidding me?’ Alejandro glared at the legal representative from Marlstone Incorporated in his London office.

‘If you want the Mendoza land Clark Marlstone bought off your father, then that’s what you have to do.’

‘He didn’t buy it off my father,’ Alejandro said through clenched teeth, ‘he stole it. He paid a fraction of what it was worth. He took advantage of my father’s financial situation after the accident. He manipulated things so he could get his hands on that land while making everyone think he was doing us a favour.’ Bastard.

‘Be that as it may, you have a chance to get it back without having to pay a single peso for it.’

Alejandro sucked in a lungful of air through his nostrils. He would have to pay for it all right. With his freedom. The thing he valued above all else. ‘I don’t even remember meeting Marlstone’s daughter.’ He glanced at the name and frowned. ‘Theodora, is it? Who is she? What’s she got to say about this, or is she the one behind it?’

He could already picture her. Pampered and spoilt. Another cheap little gold-digger wanting to marry up. A social climbing daddy’s girl who wanted her life made easy. He could just imagine how she had talked her ailing father into engineering things so she would be home free. Married to a rich trophy husband, all without having to bat a coquettish eyelid.

Not on his watch, damn it.

‘She’s as annoyed as you are,’ his lawyer said. ‘She intends to contest the will.’

As if. Alejandro knew the way women played all too well. Theodora Marlstone would protest and make a fuss for show. To put him off the scent of her avaricious motives. Of course she’d want to marry him. He was considered a Prize Catch. One of the most eligible bachelors in Argentina, if not the entire world. ‘What are her chances?’

‘Not good,’ the lawyer said. ‘The will is ironclad. Clark Marlstone wrote it while of sound mind. He got three doctors to confirm it, one imagines because he suspected one or both of you would resist his instructions and try and find a loophole. It would be a costly and lengthy exercise to try and overturn it. My advice is to do what it says and make the best of it. It’s only for six months.’

Easy for you to say.

Alejandro ploughed a hand through his hair. He already had too many responsibilities with his fostering of two street kids, Sofi and Jorge, providing food, shelter, education and a sense of family for them, or at least as far as it was possible for a bachelor to do. He didn’t need a wife to add to his troubles. Fifteen-year-old Jorge was still in that tricky stage of deciding whether to rebel or respect authority, reminding him of his younger brother Luiz at that age and the lengths he’d had to go to and the sacrifices he’d had to make to keep him from harm. While eighteen-year-old Sofi was a little more mature, she had recently expressed a desire to move to Buenos Aires to study hair and beauty. He wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea of her living in the big city without the close support he and the rest of his household staff provided for her.

Marrying would be a hard enough decision to make if he cared about someone enough to consider that sort of commitment. But how was he supposed to marry a perfect stranger? He felt antsy at the thought of marriage. Of being tied down. Of allowing someone the power to be there one minute and not there the next. Like his mother had been for his father. Proudly wearing his ring and rearing his sons one minute, bolting out of the gate to a new life in France, leaving the ring and divorce papers and two bewildered little boys behind the next.

Alejandro had tried commitment once and it had failed. Spectacularly. Even worse, he hadn’t seen it coming. It annoyed him that he had let what he felt block out what he knew. In his experience women wanted one thing and he’d been foolish to think otherwise. They wanted money and security. They did anything they could to get it. They fell in love and out of love according to the size of a man’s wallet. He didn’t care if it was hardwired into their primitive DNA. He would not be manipulated, cajoled, tricked into falling for it again.

He was older and smarter now. He never let his feelings get in the way of a good business deal. He never let his feelings cloud his judgement, colour his thinking or distract him from a task. He hadn’t rebuilt his father’s failing empire by feeling. He had done it by blood and sweat and outsmarting the opposition. Whatever roadblocks were put in front of him he stepped over, circumvented. Obliterated.

This would be no different.

*

‘Where is she?’ Alejandro asked the immaculately dressed and imperious-looking butler who answered the door at Marlstone Manor in Wiltshire.

Bushy brows as white and hairy as two caterpillars gave an austere frown over rheumy blue eyes. ‘Miss Teddy is currently engaged.’

Now that was funny. If only she were engaged. To someone else.

‘I’m sure she’ll shoehorn me into her busy schedule.’ He suppressed a cynical snort. Miss Theodora Marlstone was probably waiting for her spray tan to dry, or her nail polish, or curling her eyelash extensions or some such nonsense. Could there be any woman more vacuous than a pampered daddy’s girl?

And what the hell sort of name was Teddy? What did she think she was—a toy or a person?

‘If you will kindly wait here I will tell her you have requested an interview with—’

‘Look, no offence, buddy,’ Alejandro cut in, ‘but I haven’t got the time or the inclination to hang around and wait for your mistress to glue her fake nails on. You either lead me to her or I go looking for her. Which is it to be?’

‘Neither,’ a cool voice said from behind him.

Alejandro turned to see a small figure standing in the frame of the doorway off the black and white tiled hall. There wasn’t a fake nail in sight or a spray tan. She was wearing clothes that looked as if they had been sourced from a charity bin and her hair looked as if she had dived in head first to retrieve them. It was a wild cloud of dark brown tresses around her head and shoulders, wavy rather than curly, but clearly no effort had been spared to tame it. If anything, it looked as if she had recently mussed it up with her hands. Her trousers were a dirty shade of brown, the checked shirt unironed, and the cable sweater she wore over it was covered in balls of lint. The outfit was masculine and too big for her small frame, swamping her like a tent draped over a toothpick.

Why on earth had she dressed in such an appalling manner? What was she trying to prove? The girl was an heiress to a spectacular estate worth millions. She could afford to wear the best of high street fashion. Why was she dressing like a bag lady?

His eyes went to the bone-handled walking stick she was leaning on in what he could only describe as a proudly defiant manner.

He felt something jerk in his chest like a foot did when it missed a step.

So that was why.

‘Miss Marlstone?’

‘Señor Valquez, how nice to see you again.’

Alejandro didn’t like the feeling of being at a disadvantage. Of her knowing more about him than he knew about her. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer was a credo he lived by. And yet there was something about her that appealed to the protector in him. ‘We’ve…er…met before?’

She gave him a stiff movement of her lips that passed for a smile but he noticed it didn’t involve her arctic-cool grey-blue eyes. ‘Yes.’ Her chin rose ever so slightly. ‘Don’t you remember?’

Alejandro quickly checked his mental hard drive. He dated a lot of women. Slept with even more. But nowhere in his memory could he find a girl with eyes so deeply set they looked darker than they actually were. She had prominent eyebrows and lashes thick and dark without the boost of mascara. Cheeks sharply defined and haughtily high and a nose that looked as if it spent a lot of time up there with them. A mouth that was full and young and innocent-looking and yet with an angle of cynicism to it that matched his own.

‘I’m afraid you’ll have to remind me.’ He stretched his own lips into a half-mast smile. ‘I meet a lot of people in my line of business.’

Her eyes were unnervingly steady as they held his. It was as if she were seeing past his urbane man-in-control-of-his-universe façade to the shy boy of ten who’d had to step up to the plate after his father’s accident and his mother’s desertion. Her face was free of make-up. No mask of cosmetics to hide behind and yet he couldn’t help feeling she was a little too composed.

‘We met at British Polo Day some years ago.’

‘We did?’

‘It was the same event where you met your ex-fiancée.’

Alejandro clenched his jaw behind his polite smile. She had gone for the jugular. Bitch. Like father, like daughter. Playing games with him. Toying with him. Mocking him.

Reminding him.

He hated being reminded of his foolishness back then. At twenty-four he had stupidly believed love existed. Back then he had believed he could have a happy and fulfilling life with someone who loved him as much as he loved them. That how much money he had or didn’t have wouldn’t count. He had been swept away by the notion of building a new family like the one his mother had destroyed when she’d left his shattered father six months after the accident.

He had been wrong.

‘I’m sorry I have no recollection of our meeting.’ He ran his gaze over her as he tried to judge her age. She looked to be in her early to mid-twenties but, without make-up and wearing those dreadful tomboy ragbag clothes, she looked far younger. ‘Were we formally introduced?’

‘Yes.’

Alejandro still couldn’t place her. But then he met a lot of people during polo events. His brother played on the field while he worked the business end of things. Sponsors and corporate kings often pushed their daughters under his nose but he was always careful to keep business and pleasure separate. She had obviously taken it as a slight that he hadn’t singled her out in the past. But then why would he? She was as far away from his usual type as could be. ‘You must have been quite young at the time.’

‘Sixteen.’

So that made her twenty-six now. A plain Jane single woman sliding down the slippery slope to the big three-oh, so Daddy had agreed to set her up with a mail order groom.

Alejandro’s gut curdled with bitterness. Why had she chosen him? Why not some other guy who could stomach the thought of matrimony? Or was this some sort of payback for snubbing her in the past?

‘Is there somewhere we could talk?’ He threw a glance at the hovering butler, who looked as if he’d just stepped off a film shoot on a period drama. ‘In private?’

‘This way.’

Alejandro frowned as he followed her. She had a pronounced limp that made the action of walking look not only awkward but also painful, in spite of the use of the stick. One leg dragged slightly as if the muscles weren’t strong enough to take her full weight. Not that she was heavy or anything. She looked as if a gust of wind would send her into the next county. Was it a recent injury? He tried to recall if he had read anything about her in the press but he came up with zero. Perhaps she wasn’t the press magnet type.

He felt a flicker of interest spark and fire in his brain. Not in-your-face beautiful and broken too. Interesting. Was this why she was being packaged in the marriage deal? Did she or her father—or both—think she couldn’t get a husband any other way? She might not be billboard stunning but he could see the classical lines to her face, the porcelain skin that looked as soft and smooth and creamy as a magnolia petal, the unusual colour of her eyes that made him think of a winter lake. She had a quiet beauty that sneaked up on you without you noticing. It was the sort of beauty that would suddenly appear and snatch your breath.

She turned and faced him once they were in the library. Her expression was masked, like a puppet face that hadn’t been animated. ‘Would you care for a drink?’

‘What happened to your leg?’

She pinched her lips together, pride flashing across her features as fast as the flick of a whiplash. ‘I have whisky or brandy or cognac. Wine too. Red. White. Champagne.’

‘I asked you a question.’

Her eyes clashed with his, the chips of blue in hers striking in amongst the sea of grey. ‘A rude one.’

Alejandro gave a careless shrug. He didn’t care if he was rude. He wasn’t here to make friends. He was here to get out of the stranglehold of her father’s machinations. He wanted that land. He would do anything for that land.

But not this.

Not the M word.

He nailed her with a hardened look. ‘I’m not here to drink wine and talk about the weather. I’m here to put a stop to this nonsense.’

Her expression remained composed. Determined. Implacable. ‘I’m not marrying you.’

‘Damn right you’re not.’

‘I have no intention of marrying anyone.’

‘Couldn’t agree more.’

‘Which brings us to the rather vexing terms of my father’s will.’

Vexing? Was she stuck in a time warp or something? She talked as if she had stepped out of the pages of a Brontë sister’s novel.

Alejandro watched as she poured herself a glass of soda water. The silence was so intense he could hear the bubbles spitting and fizzing against the sides of the glass.

She had delicate hands, slim and long-fingered and milky-white like the rest of her skin. Her nails were short but not manicured that way. They were bitten down to the quick, one of them looking red and painful near the cuticle.

With her awful clothes and the absence of make-up and any other adornment such as jewellery, he suspected it had been a deliberate choice to make herself as unattractive as possible. Intriguing thought. Why would she do that? She stood to gain the most out of this deal. Or lose the most. Her inheritance rested on her agreement to the terms. A distant relative would get everything if she didn’t comply with her father’s wishes. What young woman would turn her back on an inheritance worth several millions? Marlstone Manor and its surrounding estate was a property developer’s dream. And then there was her father’s investment and property portfolio that would leave her without money worries for the rest of her life.

He studied her for another beat or two before he asked, ‘You didn’t know he’d planned things this way?’

‘No.’

She had the amazing ability to say a lot with one word, Alejandro thought. She could communicate an entire library of words with a look. And right now she was looking at him as if he had come into her neat-as-a-pin sitting room with his back hunched and his knuckles dragging.

He wasn’t used to women despising him on sight. He was used to women fawning over him and worshipping him. It came with the territory of Having Money. Everyone loved money. Especially women. It opened more bedroom doors than anything else.

He found her ice maiden approach refreshing. Delightfully entertaining. He hadn’t felt this level of interest in a long time, if ever. He could feel the little tick in his blood. The tempo raising just enough to make him aware of the physical needs he had been neglecting of late, due to the pressure of juggling work and his responsibilities at home. There was nothing he liked more than a challenge—the harder the quest the better. It made claiming the victory all the more satisfying.

He knew he could have her if he made a play for her. He could have any woman he wanted. Vanity had nothing to do with it. He could look as ugly as sin and he would still be able to draw a woman into his sensual web.

Ever since his broken engagement he had made it his business to select and seduce. He never stayed with a lover more than a couple of weeks. He was a sexual grazer. He took what was on offer and moved on before expectations made things messy.

‘What do you plan to do about this…er…vexing situation we find ourselves in?’ he said.

Her chin was thrust at a pugnacious height, her eyes glittering with such defiance and spirit he felt a tingling sensation at the base of his spine. ‘I’m seeking legal advice.’

‘Good luck with that.’

Her forehead puckered. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Alejandro wandered over to the bookshelves to see what her taste was in reading. All the classics were there. No surprise. There was a scattering of modern works, mostly thrillers and adventure and a larger selection of romance. Interesting. Did Miss Uptight Teddy Marlstone have a secret desire to be wooed and won?

‘I said, what’s that supposed to mean?’

He smiled as he pushed the spine of the book he’d inspected back in alignment with the others. Now he was getting somewhere. Getting under that starchy façade to see who she really was when she wasn’t trying to be a pain in the butt. He slowly turned and ran his gaze over her assessingly. ‘In my experience, lawyers drive expensive cars paid for by their clients.’

Her throat moved up and down like a small creature under a rug, the only crack so far in her cool composure. ‘So?’

‘Are you sure you can afford it?’

Two spots of rosy pink stained her cheeks but her gaze was as caustic as ever. ‘I haven’t sponged off my father, if that’s what you’re implying. I have my own source of income.’

‘As a children’s book illustrator, right?’

‘That’s correct.’

‘I’ve never seen any of your work.’

Her eyes pulsated with dislike. ‘I can assure you I’m quite popular with whom it counts.’

Alejandro suppressed a smile. He was enjoying their verbal stoush much more than he’d expected to. She was prim and proper and yet fiercely proud. He liked someone who could stand up for what they believed in. Who wasn’t intimidated or put off by others’ egos or agendas. She wasn’t fazed by him or by his reputation. She was making no attempt to disguise her dislike of him. He liked that. He liked it a lot. ‘We have a month to decide what to do.’

Her chin came up again and stayed up. ‘I have already decided.’

So had he…or so he’d thought.

Maybe a short-term marriage on paper would be worth considering after all.

He wanted that land.

It was a thousand hectares of prime real estate that had been in his family for generations, and would still have been except for Teddy’s father’s underhand dealings. Alejandro’s plans to extend his polo pony-breeding stud with an exclusive resort attached couldn’t go ahead without that land. It was perfectly positioned, with good grazing and access, and wouldn’t interfere or compromise the rest of his estate. Sustainable farming was an important issue to him and without that land being returned to his possession he couldn’t rest easy that it would be taken care of in the best way possible. What if Teddy’s relative sold it to a developer? There were plenty about, looking for properties to exploit. The place would be desecrated and his along with it. He had to stop that happening. He would do anything to stop that happening.

Almost anything.

‘Are you really prepared to throw all of this away?’ He waved a hand to encompass her gracious surroundings.

She eyeballed him with that same piercing intensity. ‘Are you really prepared to marry a perfect stranger in exchange for a plot of land?’

He sent his gaze over her in a long lazy sweep, taking in the swell of her small pert breasts the voluminous sweater couldn’t quite conceal. ‘I’m thinking about it.’

Her eyes flickered and then widened as if she couldn’t quite believe her ears.

Alejandro was with her on that. He couldn’t believe his either. Had he really just said he was thinking about it? Red flag. Panic button. Exit stage left.

He was thinking about the M word?

‘Why is the land of such importance to you?’ she asked.

The one thing Alejandro had learned in business was not to show how much you wanted something. It gave the opposition too much power. It was better to act cool and indifferent, as if this was just another business transaction. Nothing out of the ordinary. Easy come, easy go.

‘The land is not the issue. The issue is whether I would feel comfortable watching you lose everything for the sake of six months in a paper marriage.’

Her throat rose and fell again as she made a little gulping sound. ‘Did you say…paper?’

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