Secrets of Castillo del Arco

 

He appeared out of the fog, tall, broad and dark as night as he moved stealthily between the funeral sculptures, and a shiver of recognition washed through her
.

Raoul
.

She had seen him at the service, and her heart had lifted at the prospect of seeing him again after so many years.

Raoul who, with his intense black eyes and passionate mouth, had been her every adolescent fantasy. Dark fantasies she’d had no right to imagine. Wicked fantasies that brought a blush to her cheeks just thinking about them.

And the air shifted and parted before him, and then he was there, standing before her, so tall that she had to tilt her head back to look up at him. He didn’t smile. She didn’t expect him to—not really, not this day.

‘Gabriella,’ he said, in a way that seemed to cherish every syllable.

And then he leaned down to kiss first one cheek and then the other. She breathed him in, taken by the way he smelled so familiar, and yet there was so much more besides—as if what she’d remembered had been but a shadow of his essence.

About the Author

TRISH MOREY
is an Australian who’s also spent time living and working in New Zealand and England. Now she’s settled with her husband and four young daughters in a special part of South Australia, surrounded by orchards and bushland, and visited by the occasional koala and kangaroo. With a lifelong love of reading, she penned her first book at the age of eleven, after which life, career, and a growing family kept her busy until once again she could indulge her desire to create characters and stories—this time in romance. Having her work published is a dream come true. Visit Trish at her website: www.trishmorey.com

Recent titles by the same author:

FIANCÉE FOR ONE NIGHT
THE HEIR FROM NOWHERE

Did you know these are also available as eBooks?
Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk

Secrets of
Castillo del Arco

Trish Morey

www.millsandboon.co.uk

 

With grateful thanks to Ellen, Charlie and Claire for being my captive carpool brainstormers. Thank you so much for your interest and your input and energy, and most of all thank you for Venice. You guys rock!

And with thanks, as ever, to my fabulous Maytoners, for Coogee Beach and fish and chips, for making me laugh and cry and commiserate and celebrate, but with thanks, most of all, for once again making magic happen in the shape of words.

For it must be a kind of magic.

Thank you!

Trish
xxx

PROLOGUE

Paris

‘P
ROMISE ME
something, Raoul. Grant a dying man one last wish.’

The old man’s voice was thready and thin, little more than a whistle on his breath and no contest for the battery of machines beeping their presence around the bed. Raoul leaned closer. ‘You mustn’t talk that way, Umberto.’ Raoul placed his hand over the old man’s, trying not to damage the papery skin or nudge the needle projecting from the back of his claw-like hand; trying to pretend it was nowhere near as bad as it was. ‘You are as strong as an ox,’ he lied, wishing it were true. ‘The doctor said—’

‘The doctor is a fool!’ the old man interjected, dissolving into a fit of coughing that left him wheezing in its wake. ‘I am not afraid of death. I know my time has come.’

Wiry fingers clumsily overturned those of his visitor’s, squeezing down as if to emphasise the urgency of his words, even though his once-legendary strength was gone, his fingers grown weak. ‘But I fear what might
happen once I am gone. Which is why I summoned you. You must promise me now, Raoul, before it is too late …’

The old man sagged against the pillows, his eyes closed in an ashen, sunken face, his sudden outburst taking its toll. For the first time Raoul was struck with the realisation that there would be no coming back: this time his oldest friend, his mentor—and the closest thing to family he had known for more than a decade—was dying. He had to force himself to stay and not flee from the room and the heavy knot tightening in his gut.

‘You know I would do anything for you, Umberto,’ he uttered in a voice that felt like gravel in his throat. ‘You have my word. Ask, and it shall be.’

An eternity passed, an eternity filled with beeping machines that were the only sign Raoul had that his old friend had not already passed, until with a sigh his eyes fluttered open, watery and dim, his voice tinged with affection. ‘Look after Gabriella for me. When I die, she will be vulnerable. I will not rest unless she is safe.’

He touched his free hand to the old man’s shoulder to reassure him, his fingers encountering little more than bone. ‘Then rest easy, old friend. Nothing will happen to her. I would be honoured to act as her guardian.’

The old man surprised him, snorting a protest instead of uttering the thanks he’d half-anticipated. Raoul was halfway to celebrating this spark of life, a glimpse of the Umberto that once was, until the words his old friend had said in response registered in his mind—impossible words, words that made the blood roar in his ears, sending thoughts of celebration tumbling and smashing
like debris caught up in the first destructive wave of a tsunami.

He stood, unable to sit while the roar of the wave churned through him, and turned away from the bed, raking a damp hand through his hair and tugging at his tie, looking ceiling-ward for the air-conditioning vents. God, but it was hot in here.

‘Raoul, did you hear me?’ The thread of Umberto’s frail words came on a thin wire that dug its way into him, slowing his retreat.

‘I heard you,’ he said—
every last word
—but that didn’t stop Umberto from repeating them now, driving that sharp wire deeper and deeper into his psyche where it twisted and grew poisoned barbs.

‘You must marry her, Raoul! Promise me you will marry Gabriella.’

Madness!
He dragged in air tainted with the smell of impending death, disinfectant and the chemical sprays designed to disguise them all yet failing miserably, and threw his head back, hating what was happening—hating even more what he was hearing. Wasn’t it bad enough that his old friend was dying? It had to be some kind of madness, he decided, for his friend to propose such insanity. ‘You know that is not possible. Besides,’ he added, remembering the last time he’d seen the girl, ‘Even if I was crazy enough to marry again, surely Gabriella is too young?’

‘A woman now.’ Umberto blinked away tears, his voice breaking with emotion. ‘Twenty-four years of age.’

Raoul was shocked by the invisible slide of time; cursed the years he had lost in the mire of another age.
Had it really been that long? Then again, maybe this made it better, easier. ‘Then surely she is old enough to choose her own husband?’

‘And if she chooses Consuelo Garbas?’

‘Manuel’s brother?’ Raoul lifted disbelieving hands to his temples, driving fingertips deep into the veins that pounded like drums. God, but could this nightmare get any worse?

The name Garbas was seared on his soul, the letters burned deep, so deep that his bones ached at its mention. It was a name he’d hoped he’d heard for the last time a long, bleak time ago.

Yet he should have known that ridding himself of this curse would never be that easy. The Garbas family was like a black hole, sucking life from the world around, devouring anyone and anything in its path. He turned back, moved closer to the bed, needing to know despite himself. ‘What does he want with Gabriella?’

‘He’s been sniffing around her like a hyena waiting for a carcass, waiting for her to turn twenty-five when she can claim her inheritance.’ The old man paused, catching his breath, although the rise and fall of the covers over his chest was barely discernible. ‘He knows I would never permit her to marry him. So now he waits for me to die before he makes his move.’

Raoul nodded. ‘Hyena’ was right. It was the way his kind operated: scavengers; scum, the lot of them. Only their massive wealth gave them entree into high society, lending them a veneer of respectability so brittle it was a wonder it didn’t shatter every time they drew breath.
And now one of them was after Gabriella? ‘She doesn’t know?’

Umberto scoffed. ‘He would hardly tell her the truth. She knows only that his brother died in tragic circumstances. She thinks that gives them something in common.’ The old man sighed and gave a hint of a wistful smile as he shook his head. ‘I have tried to warn her but Gabriella sees only the good in everyone—even the likes of him. And all the time he plays her like a fish on a line, knowing he has the advantage of time. So, you see, I have no one to turn to but you. You must marry her, Raoul,’ he said, lifting his head shakily from the pillow in a supreme effort that saw the cords in his neck stand out tight, his watery eyes turn glassy in their intensity. ‘
You
must keep her safe. You must!’

He collapsed back into the pillows to catch his breath, the rapid beep of machines filling the void, while Raoul sat down by his side and bowed his head, his thoughts in turmoil, conflicted beyond measure.

Damned if he would let a Garbas worm his way into Umberto’s granddaughter’s fortune. Damned if he would ever let that happen after what he had suffered. But Raoul was the last person who could keep her safe.

Besides, did Umberto really think it would be such a simple matter to get a twenty four year old woman—any woman, for that matter—to agree to marry him? Why should she give him a second glance when he could give her nothing in return? She would be some kind of fool if she did.

He took his friend’s hand again, half-wondering, half-knowing that this would be the last time they met.
‘Umberto, old friend—
my friend
—I love you with my life, but this makes no sense. There must be a better way to keep Gabriella safe and I will find it. But I would be no kind of husband for your granddaughter.’

‘I’m not asking you to love her!’ he blustered from the bed, the machines beside him going into overdrive. ‘Just marry her. Keep her safe!’ The door burst open, a nurse rushing through, pushing the visitor aside as she checked her patient.

‘Visit’s over,’ she snapped out without looking over her shoulder. ‘You’re upsetting my patient.’

Raoul raised his face to the ceiling in supplication and frustration. When he looked back at the bed where the nurse fussed, checked and adjusted drips and machines, his old friend looked so forlorn and desperate and beyond tired, a shadow of a man who had once been great. It struck Raoul that his last moments, his last days, should not be wasted in worry such as this, even if it meant promising the impossible so that he might at least die in peace. Umberto deserved that at least.

‘I’ll marry her, old friend, if that is what you ask,’ he said, ignoring the warning scowl he earned in reward from the nurse, grinding the words out between his teeth as the wire in his gut pulled inexorably tighter and trying desperately not to think of the cost to them both. ‘I’ll marry her.’

CHAPTER ONE

Three weeks later

W
INTER
had come early, the late-September day dressed in drab colours as if the planet itself was mourning the death of her grandfather. But the inclement weather found only empathy with Gabriella D’Arenberg, the damp air and misty rain matching her mood as she stood beside her grandfather’s flower-strewn grave in the Cimetiere de Passy. Then the last of the mourners whispered condolences and pressed cold lips briefly to her cheeks before drifting away along the path.

She would leave shortly too, once Consuelo had returned from the call he had excused himself to take, and they would join everyone at the hotel where the caterers were no doubt already serving canapés and cognac. But for now Gabriella was happy to be left alone in quiet reflection in the cold, dank stillness of the graveyard. Here, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, there was nothing to intrude, the sounds of the city barely penetrating the stone walls.

Until a dark shadow made her gasp and look around.

He appeared out of the fog, tall, broad and dark as
night as he moved stealthily between the funeral sculptures, the winged angels and fat cherubs suspended ghost-like in the swirling mist as he passed. A shiver of recognition—or was it of relief?—washed through her and bizarrely, for the first time that day, she felt warm.

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