LEANDRO CARRERA MARQUEZ, Duque de Sandoval, awoke when his valet opened the bedroom curtains and bid his illustrious employer a cheerful good morning. His lean, darkly handsome face grim, Leandro doubted that the day ahead would be the slightest bit different from any other day in recent months. Fresh towels were laid out in the bathroom for his shower. A custom-made designer business suit and a monogrammed silk shirt and toning tie were assembled in readiness for his getting dressed.
Elegant and, as always, immaculate in appearance, Leandro finally descended the magnificent staircase of the family castillo with all the cool assurance and dignity of his grand forebears. He knew that he was bored and he scorned the feeling, well aware that he was bountifully blessed with health, wealth and success. The walls he passed bore the portraits of his predecessors-the very flower of proud Castilian aristocracy-ranging from the first duke, who had been a famous soldier and a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, to Leandro’s father, a distinguished banker who had died when his son was barely five years old.
‘Your Excellency.’ Having been greeted by Basilio, his major-domo, and two maidservants at the foot of the stairs with much the same pomp and ceremony that the first duque would have received in the fifteenth century, Leandro was ushered into breakfast where the day’s papers, including the leading financial publications, awaited him. There was no need for him to ask for anything. His every need and wish were carefully foreseen by his devoted staff and perfect peace reigned while he ate, for his preference for silence at the breakfast table was well known.
A phone was brought to him. His mother, the dowager Duquesa, Doña Maria, was on the line asking him to lunch with her at the town house in Seville later that day. It didn’t suit him. He would have to reschedule business appointments at the bank. But Leandro, uneasily aware that he spent little time with his relations, gave reluctant assent.
As he sipped his coffee his brilliant dark eyes rested on the full-length portrait of his late wife, Aloise, on the wall at the other end of the room. He wondered if anyone else in the family even appreciated that in forty-eight hours the anniversary of Aloise’s death would take place. Aloise, his childhood friend, who in dying almost a year earlier had left a gaping hole in the settled fabric of his life. He wondered if he would ever get over the guilt induced by her tragic demise and decided that it would be wise to spend that day away from home working in London. Sentimentality was not one of Leandro’s failings.
He spent a very busy morning at the Carrera Bank, an institution that had been handling the same clients’ fortunes for generations and where his own services as one of the financial world’s most fabulously successful investment bankers were much in demand. Strikingly intelligent and gifted in the field of wealth preservation and asset management, Leandro had been marked out early as a genius at analysing world money markets. Juggling complex figures gave him considerable pleasure and satisfaction. Numbers, unlike people, were easy to understand and deal with, he acknowledged wryly.
When he kept his luncheon appointment he was surprised to see that his mother’s sister, his aunt Isabella, and his own two sisters, Estefania and Julieta, were also present.
‘I felt that it was time to talk to you,’ Doña Maria murmured with a meaningful look at her only son over the appetisers.
Leandro elevated a questioning ebony brow. ‘About what, precisely?’
‘You’ve been a widower for a year now.’ It was Estefania who responded.
‘Is there a point to that obvious statement?’ Leandro enquired drily.
‘You’ve spent enough time in mourning to satisfy the conventions. It’s time to think of remarriage,’ his mother informed him.
His lean, strong face rigidly controlled, Leandro stared steadily back at the older woman. ‘I don’t agree.’
Julieta, his younger sister piped up, ‘Nobody is going to replace Aloise, Leandro. We don’t expect that and neither can you-’
‘But you must put the family’s unbroken line of inheritance first,’ Doña Maria declared with gravity. ‘There is presently no heir to the title or the estate. You are thirty-three years old. Last year when Aloise died we all learned how fragile and fickle life can be. What if something similar were to happen to you? You must remarry and father an heir, my son.’
Leandro compressed his handsome mouth into a bloodless line that would have encouraged less determined opponents to drop the subject. He had no need of such reminders when he had spent his life being made aware daily of his many responsibilities. Indeed he had never known an hour’s freedom from the weighty burden of expectations that accompanied his privileged social status and great wealth. He had been raised in the same traditions as his ancestors to put duty and honour and family first. But an exceptional spark of rebellion was finally firing inside his lean, well built body.