‘I’m aware of those facts, but I’m not ready to take another wife,’ he retorted crisply.

‘I thought it would be helpful if we drew up a short list of potential brides to help you,’ Doña Maria contended with a wide smile that struck her angry son as bordering on manic.

‘I don’t think that would be helpful. Indeed I think it’s a ludicrous idea,’ Leandro replied coldly. ‘When and if I remarry, I will choose my own wife.’

His aunt Isabella, however, would not be silenced. She put forward a candidate from a family as rich and prominent as their own. Leandro dealt her a look of scorn. His mother was, however, even quicker to name her own selection-a young widow with a son and, therefore, what the older woman termed a proven fertility record. An expression of unhidden distaste crossed Leandro’s classic dark features. He knew exactly why that point was being made. Unhappily, talk of fertility records reminded him of livestock breeding. His elder sister, Estefania, was not to be outdone and, oblivious to the disbelieving glances of her relations, suggested the teenaged daughter of a personal friend as being perfect bride material. Leandro almost laughed out loud at that idea. As he was well aware, marriage could be a most challenging relationship, even for those who might seem very well matched as a couple.

‘We’ll hold a party and invite some suitable women,’ Doña Maria announced, continuing on her theme with the stubborn insensitivity of a woman determined to have her say. ‘But not the teenager, Estefania. I really don’t think so young a woman would be appropriate. A Marquez bride needs to be mature, well versed in etiquette, educated and socially accomplished, as well as being from a suitable background.’

‘I will not attend any such party,’ Leandro declared without hesitation. ‘I have no intention of remarrying at this point in time.’

Julieta gave him an apologetic look. ‘But at least if you went to the party you might fall in love with someone.’

‘Leandro is the Duque de Sandoval,’ Doña Maria countered in a deflating tone of ice. ‘Thankfully, he knows who he is and he has no nonsense of that variety in his head.’

‘There will be no party,’ Leandro decreed, implacable outrage igniting steadily beneath his cool façade at their comments. He could hardly credit that his own relations could be so crass or interfering. But then he was willing to admit that none of them was close. The formality and reserve that his mother had always insisted on had driven wedges of polite behaviour between them all.

‘We are only thinking of you and what is best for you,’ Doña Maria murmured sweetly.

Leandro studied the woman who had sent him to an English boarding school at the age of six years old and remained impervious to his tear-stained letters begging to be allowed to come home. ‘I know what is best for me, Mama. A man must act for himself in such a personal matter.’

‘Happy birthday, Molly! What do you think?’ JezAndrews prompted, standing back from the car with a flourish.

Wide-eyed, Molly Chapman studied her elderly car. Jez had repainted it a cerise pink colour that she loved on sight. She walked round the vehicle, stunned by a transformation that had caused all the rust, dents and scratches to disappear. ‘It’s amazing! You’ve worked a miracle, Jez.’

‘That’s what mates are for. Hopefully it’ll pass the MOT test now without any major problems. I’ve replaced a lot of parts. I knew that helping you to keep your car on the road was the best present I could give you,’ her friend and landlord admitted.

Molly flung her arms round him in an exuberant hug. A stocky fair-haired man of medium height, Jez was still a comfortable seven inches taller than Molly, who was tiny in stature and build, with a mop of dark curls and enormous green eyes. Her quick graceful movements crackled with the energy of a lively personality. ‘I don’t know how to thank you.’

Jez shrugged and backed off, embarrassed by her gratitude. ‘It was no big deal,’ he said awkwardly.

But Molly knew the full value of his generosity and it touched her to the heart that he had sacrificed so much of his free time to work on her beat-up car. But then, Jez was her closest friend and he knew that she needed the vehicle to get round the craft shops and fairs where she sold her wares at weekends. Molly and Jez had been in foster care together as children and their ties went back a long way.

‘Don’t forget I’m staying over at Ida’s tonight,’ Jez reminded her. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘How is Ida?’

At the thought of the sick older woman, Jez vented a sad sigh. ‘About as well as can be expected. I mean, it’s not like she’s going to get any better.’

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