Maddie Vasquez stood in the shadows like a fugitive. Just yards away, the plushest hotel in Mendoza rose in all its majestic colonial glory to face the imposing Plaza Indepencia. She reassured herself that she wasn’t actually a fugitive, she was just collecting herself…she could see the calibre of the crowd going into the foyer: monied and exclusive. The elite of Mendoza society.
The evening was melting into night and lights twinkled in bushes and trees nearby lending the scene a fairytale air. Maddie’s soft mouth firmed and she tried to quell her staccato heart beat. It had been a long time, if ever, that she’d believed in fairytales. She’d never harboured illusions about the dreamier side of life. A mother who saw you only as an accessory to be dressed up and paraded like a doll and a father who resented you for not being the son he’d lost would do that to a child.
Maddie shook her head as if that could shake free the sudden melancholy assailing her and at the same time her eye was caught by the almost silent arrival of a low slung silver vehicle at the bottom of the main steps which led up to the hotel. Instinctively she drew back more. The car was clearly vintage and astronomically expensive. Her mouth dried and her palms got sweaty – would it be – ? The door was opened by a uniformed hotel doorman and a tall shape uncurled from the driving seat.
It was him.
Her heart stopped beating for a long moment.
Nicolás Cristobal de Rojas. The most successful vintner in Mendoza and probably Argentina by now. Not to mention his expansion into French Bordeaux country which ensured he had two vintages a year. In the notoriously fickle world of winemaking, the Rojas estate profits had tripled and quadrupled in recent years and success oozed from every inch of his six foot four, broad shouldered frame.
Dressed in a black tuxedo suit Maddie could see his gorgeous, yet stern and arrogant features as he cast a bored looking glance around him. It skipped over where she was hiding like a thief and when he looked away her heart stuttered back to life and she dragged in a breath.
She’d forgotten how startling his blue eyes were. He looked leaner. Darker. Sexier. His distinctive dark blond hair had always made it easy to mark him out from the crowd, not that his sheer charisma and good looks wouldn’t have marked him out anyway. He’d always been more than his looks…he’d always carried a tangible aura of power and sexual energy.
Another flash of movement made her drag her eyes away and she saw a tall blonde beauty emerging from the other side of the car, helped by the conscientious doorman. As Maddie watched, the woman walked around to his side, her long fall of blonde hair shining almost as much as the floor – length silver lame dress which outlined every slim curve of her body with a loving touch.
The woman linked her arm through his – Maddie couldn’t see the look they shared but from the smile on the woman’s face she didn’t doubt it was hot. A sudden shaft of physical pain lanced her and Maddie put a hand to her belly in reaction. No, she begged mentally, she didn’t want him to affect her like this. She didn’t want him to affect her at all.
She’d wasted long teenage years dreaming about him, lusting after him, building daydreams around him. And that foolish dreaming had culminated in catastrophe and a fresh deepening of the generations old hostility between their families. It had caused the rift to end all rifts, it had broken her own family apart. She’d realised all of her most fervent fantasies but had also been thrown into a nightmare of horrific revelations.
The last time she’d seen Nicolás Cristobal de Rojas had been a few years ago in a club in London. Their eyes had clashed across the thronged room and she’d never forget the look of pure loathing on his face before he’d turned away and disappeared.
Sucking in deep breaths and praying for control now, Maddie squared her shoulders. She couldn’t lurk in the shadows all night. She’d come to tell Nicolás Cristobal de Rojas that she was home and had no intention of selling out to him. Not now, or ever. She held the long legacy of her family in her hands and it would not die with her. He had to know that or he might put the same pressure on her as he’d done to her father – taking advantage of his physical and emotional weakness to encourage him to sell to his vastly more successful neighbour.
As much as she’d have loved to hide behind solicitor’s letters – she couldn’t afford to pay the legal fees. And she didn’t want Rojas to think she was too scared to confront him herself. She tried to block out the last cataclysmic meeting they’d had – if she went down that road now she’d turn around for sure. Focus on the present. And the future.
She knew better than anyone just how ruthless the Rojas family could be, but even she had blanched at the pressure Nicolás de Rojas had put on an ailing man. It was the kind of thing she’d have expected of his father, but somehow, despite everything – not of Nicolás…more fool her. She of all people should have known what to expect.
With a shaking hand she smoothed down the glittery black dress she wore. Maddie’s meagre budget since she’d left Argentina hadn’t run to buying party dresses. Tonight was the prestigious annual Mendoza Vintners Dinner and she wouldn’t have been able to get close to the place if she didn’t look the part. Luckily she’d found some of her mother’s dresses that her father hadn’t destroyed in his rage eight years before…
At first it had looked modest enough – high – necked at the front. It was only when she’d had it on, and was aware that if she didn’t leave soon she’d miss her window of opportunity that she’d realized that it was backless – to just above her buttocks. All of her mother’s other dresses needed serious dry – cleaning if she was going to change, this one had somehow miraculously been protected in a plastic covering. So it was this dress or nothing.
Maddie just wished that her mother had been less flamboyant and taller. At five foot nine the dress ended around Maddie’s mid – thigh, showing lots of pale leg. Her unusual colouring of black hair, green eyes and pale skin was courtesy of a great – great – grandmother who had come to Argentina with a wave of Irish immigrants and who had subsequently married into the Vasquez family.
So now as she finally stepped from the shadows outside the hotel and the gentle breeze whistled over her bare flesh, she felt ridiculously exposed. Mustering up all the courage she would need for this encounter she valiantly ignored the double – take glances she drew of recognition and strode into the marbled and luxurious lobby.
Nicolás Cristobal de Rojas stifled a yawn. He’d been working around the clock to ensure this year’s grapes would be ready to pick soon. After a mercurial summer, they would either have one of the best vintages on their hands, or the worst. He grimaced slightly, he knew bringing in his vintage wasn’t the only excuse for driving himself like a demon. That work ethic was buried deep in his fraught childhood –
‘Really darling,’ came a dry voice to his right, ‘am I that boring?’
Nic forced his attention back into the room and looked down at his date and quirked a mocking smile, ‘Never.’
His blonde companion squeezed his arm playfully, ‘I think the ennui is getting to you Nic, you need to go to Beunos Aires and have some fun – I don’t know how you stand it in this backwater,’ she shuddered theatrically and then said something about going to the powder room and disappeared with a sexy sway to her walk.
Nic was relieved to be immune to this very feminine display and watched as male heads swivelled to watch her progress. He shook his head ruefully and thanked his lucky stars that Estella’s presence tonight might at least temporarily stave off the more determined of the Mendoza man – eaters. He was in no mood to humour the mercenary women he attracted in droves. His last lover had screamed hysterically at him for an hour and accused him of having no heart or soul. He had no desire to head down that path again any time soon.
He could do without the sex – if that was going to be the outcome, and if truth be told, his last sexual encounters had all felt curiously…empty. Satisfying on one level only. Yet, as for a more long – term relationship? He certainly had no intention of even thinking about that any time soon. The toxic relationship of his parents had cautioned him from an early age. He was going to choose any long – term partner with extreme care and diligence. Naturally there would be a long – term partner at some point in the future; he had a valuable legacy to pass onto the next generation and he had no intention of breaking the precious cycle of inheritance.
Just then he saw a figure appear in the doorway to the ballroom. Inexplicably his skin tightened over his bones and the back of his neck prickled – the same way it had just now outside the hotel when he’d felt as if he was being watched.
He couldn’t make out the woman’s features, he could only make out long long shapely pale legs and a glittering short black dress which outlined a slender figure. But something about her was so instantly familiar. In his gut. Midnight black wavy hair was swept over one shoulder and then he saw her head turn towards him. Even from where he stood he could see a stillness enter her frame and then she started to walk…directly towards him.
Ridiculously Nic felt the need to turn and leave. But he stood his ground. As she came closer and closer, weaving through the crowd, a suspicion grew and formed in his head. It couldn’t be he told himself. It’s been years…she was in London.
He was barely aware of the hushed murmurs surrounding him and growing louder as the woman finally came to a stop just a few feet away. Recognition and incredulity warred in his head. Along with the realisation that she wasstunning. She had always been beautiful, slightly ethereal, but she’d matured into a true beauty since he’d seen her last. She was statuesque and slender and curvaceous all at once. An intoxicating package. And Nic hadn’t even realised that he’d given her such a thorough examination until his eyes met hers and he saw the pink flush in her pale cheeks. It had a direct effect on his body, causing a hot throb of desire in his groin.
The ennui he’d just been teased about was long gone. Too many emotions and sensations were starting to fizz in his gut to make sense of – the dominant ones being acrid betrayal and humiliation, still, after all these years – so he retreated behind a cold wall of anger. Anything to douse this very unwelcome stabbing of desire. His eyes narrowed and clashed with eyes so green they looked like jewels. He had to exert every ounce of his iron control not to be flung back into time and remember what it had felt like to almost drown in those eyes. The problem was; he had drowned.
‘Madalena Vasquez,’ he drawled, not a hint of his loss of composure in his voice, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’