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Authors: Nerina Hilliard

The House of Adriano

THE HOUSE OF ADRIANO

Nerina Hilliard

Little orphaned Peter Balgare was no relation of Aileen's, but she felt responsible for him. Peter's father, she knew, had relatives in Spain, but he had never wanted to have anything to do with them - and when Aileen met Peter's uncle, the haughty Duarte Adriano, Conde de Marindos, she could easily understand why, and saw no reason why she should hand Peter over to him. But Duarte Adriano was a force to be reckoned with - as Aileen discovered before long!

Was there any hope for their love? Only a miracle could bring them together. Duarte Adriano was wealthy and arrestingly attractive. He might have been perfect had he not seen women simply as adornments! Besides Duarte was tied by a family-arranged engagement.

 

 

CHAPTER I

Aileen Lawrence
had been twenty-four for exactly two days when Duarte Adriano first came into her life.
To be more exact
- D
uarte Luis Manuel Diego y Carelis Adriano, Conde de Marindos.
She did not know who he was when she first met him, of course, nor did she have the faintest idea just then that he was going to cause such a vast amount of difference in her life; the troubles and upsets he was going to be responsible for.

He arrived at the Southern Cross, Sydney’s newest luxury hotel, at a little after ten o’clock. Aileen was sitting at her desk, frowning to herself as she endeavoured to bring some continuity to a letter in her notebook. It was not her shorthand that was at fault, but Marius Jenton’s dictation. For such a well-educated and rich man - he owned the Southern Cross - he had a remarkably poor grasp of dictation, and if left to themselves his letters would end up jerky, ungrammatical, and sometimes with a complete lack of coherence, but knowing that his extremely efficient secretary would always make good sense and good English out of them, he rarely worried.

Across the room her young assistant, Betty Jamison, was supposed to be doing some copy typing, but more often than not her attention kept wandering to the glass-panelled door that led into the vestibule.

“Gosh!”

The sudden gasp from Betty made the elder girl look up involuntarily, glancing towards the glass door herself. Betty had given up all pretence of work.

“Isn’t he marvellous! I wonder who he is.”

Just as involuntarily, Aileen found her glance going to the tall, black-haired figure approaching the reception desk.

“Somebody important,” Betty whispered, and Aileen found herself instinctively agreeing. There was a c
e
rtain assurance about the man, a proud poise to the dark head, unconscious acceptance of expensive clothes. They quite often had rich people staying at the Southern Cross - in fact it was only the rich who could afford the astronomical charges - but there was something intangibly different about this one.

The telephone rang just then and distracted her attention from him - actually it was only an impersonal kind of interest, because she was not the kind of girl to weave airy-fairy romances about the rich patrons of the Southern Cross, although it must be admitted that at times she did wonder what it felt like to be so rich that almost every whim could be gratified, to be able to travel and visit the exotic places one saw on travel posters. Not that she had anything to complain about, she would tell herself sternly on those occasions. She earned good wages, was quite comfortable in her tiny flat - and she had Peter.

The telephone, the internal one, turned out to be a call from Marius Jenton summoning her to his own office, and she gathered up notebook and pencils and opened the door that gave such a good view of the vestibule and which was still riveting Betty’s attention. The younger girl’s interest naturally enough recalled the subject of it to mind, and it was quite natural that she should shoot a quick glance towards him as she crossed the vestibule to Marius Jenton’s office, which was on the other side.

Near at hand he seemed to be quite exceptionally good-looking. Tall and very dark, he looked as if he could belong to one of the latin races, but his skin did not have the swarthy darkness of some of the latin immigrants she had seen around the city. It was a clear olive, deeply tanned and stretched across high cheekbones, and his profile had sharply aquiline lines. Black hair was rigorously disciplined and did not have the least sign of a wave to break its sheen. At a guess she put his age at about thirty or a little older.

Suddenly, as if he felt her gaze on him, he glanced up from signing his name in the register and she saw that he had dark eyes that were cool and remote, a thin, firm mouth that had nothing in the least sensuous about it - and in that brief exchange of glances something odd happened. She was aware of instant and unaccountable antagonism, but at the same time a strange breathlessness. She had the feeling too that in those few seconds he had taken in everything about her - slender figure of medium height in a tailored skirt and blouse, blue eyes set in features that were piquant and charming, a red mouth that was eminently kissable - although very few had been allowed that liberty - a chin that was just slightly pointed, making her face more oval than round and looked as if it might be stubborn on occasion, a little tip-tilted nose and platinum fair hair, quite natural, that was brushed in a sleek cap against her finely shaped head and just curled up at the ends.

Involuntarily, her chin tilted just a little as she met that dark glance, then she gave him the conventionally polite smile that his position as a patron demanded and disappeared into Jenton’s office, closing the door that was marked Private behind her, with an odd feeling that she was closing it upon something dangerous, although why that should be so she could not imagine, because the man outside quite
obviously belonged to an entirely different world from the one she occupied.

There was something that puzzled her, though - an odd sense of familiarity. Those aquiline, hawk-like features reminded her of someone, but it was a likeness so tenuous and undefined that she could not place it, and anyway it was not something that could occupy her mind when she had to concentrate wholeheartedly on taking down the tangled sentences of the short fat man who sat on the opposite side of the desk from her.

When she finally returned to her own office, Betty almost pounced on her.

“Well, what did you think of him?”

“Think of who?” She had forgotten the man who had so unaccountably aroused her antagonism a short time ago, engrossed in the last letter she had taken down. Perhaps she would have to go over it again with Marius Jenton to get it thoroughly clear. Then she caught sight of a tall, dark-haired girl sitting on the
corner
of her desk and smiled quickly. “Hallo, Pat. I didn’t see you at first.”

Pat Brenfell grinned. “Engrossed in your notes or that attractive hunk of manhood that arrived a little while ago?”

Aileen laughed. “Muddled Marius,” their nickname for the otherwise extremely efficient owner, “would take up anyone’s whole attention. I still can’t make out whether that last letter’s supposed to mean yes, no or just maybe. Once I get that clear I can write the thing myself.” She shook her head. “I’ll have to go over it w
ith
him, I suppose. I should have done so straight away, but he was in a hurry, wanted to rush out somewhere, so I thought perhaps I could straighten it out myself. Seems I can’t after all.”

“What did you think of him?” Betty demanded.

“Who, Marius?” Aileen asked, pretending to misunderstand, partly from a desire to tease her young assistant and partly from an odd reluctance to talk about the tall, dark man whose glance had met hers and clashed so strangely.

“No, of course not,” Betty retorted impatiently, as if she was the world’s worst idiot for having entertained the idea for even the briefest moment. As if anyone could be interested in fat little Marius Jenton when there was somebody like that mystery man around, her express
i
on said with extreme clarity.

“Oh, him.” Aileen pretended to recollect, and shrugged, speaking with noncommittal carelessness. “Quite unusual, wasn’t he?”

Very obviously Betty considered that far from adequate. She looked almost indignant.

“Unusual! Is that all?”

Aileen smiled. “What else do you want me to say?”

“That you’ve fallen head over heels in love with him at first sight, I should imagine,” Pat remarked dryly.

“I’m not the type,” Aileen replied, just as drily. She slanted an amused glance at the dark-haired girl. “You saw him, then?”

Pat nodded. “I have a funny idea I’ve seen him somewhere before.”

Betty’s eyes opened wide. “Do you know who he is?”

“Can’t place him. Could be Spanish, though, by his accent.” She had been to Spain when she went for a European holiday some years ago. She did not come from a wealthy family, but with two other girls and the brother of one of them had saved determinedly and managed to visit quite a few places overseas.

“Gosh! How thrilling,” Betty said in an awed whisper. “I wonder what he’s doing over here.”

“Well, I suppose he can travel about the world if he feels like it,” Aileen said dryly. “From the look of him he can well afford it!”

The suitcases the porter had carried in had been expensive ones, monogrammed and also bearing what from a distance might ha
ve
been a crest.

While Pat frowned to herself, obviously trying to remember his name and what she had heard about him, Aileen found herself remembering that exchange of glances and trying to account for the antagonism she had felt.

Pat glanced up and grinned after a moment. “There’s an easy enough way to find out,” and she straight away went out of the office and crossed to the reception desk, which was by now deserted except for the middle-aged woman behind it. She came back a few minutes later and nodded, with another grin.

“I should have remembered. He’s most certainly Spanish
-
Duarte Adriano, Co
n
de de Marindos,” she added with a little chuckle and a mock solemn bow.

“Duarte Adriano!” Aileen echoed sharply, her eyes narrowing. “So that’s who he is,” she added more slowly. It explained the odd sense of familiarity, when she had known quite well that she had never met him before, or even seen a photograph of him.

“Duarte Luis Manuel Diego Carelis Adriano, Conde de Marindos,” Eric’s
v
oice echoed mockingly in her mind. “Not just a mere Spanish
Don.
Oh no - a Count. That’s much higher up in the Spanish aristocracy.”

So it would have been a crest on his cases. Conde de Marindos, head of the house of Adriano.

Pat raised her brows slightly. “You sound as if you knew him.”

“No ... no, of course not,” Aileen denied hastily. “I
just
...
mixed the name up with someone else for the moment.”

“Conde de Marindos,” Betty said with awe in her voice, and Pat chuckled again.

“Duarte Luis Manuel Diego Carelis Adriano,” she said, and hearing the man’s full name Aileen knew there could be no mistake. This was the same man.

Eric’s cousin.

“Gosh!” Betty ejaculated again, as she had earlier. “What else do you know about him?”

“Well, he’s fabulously rich, naturally. I remember where I saw him now. It was in Madrid - he was with a party at the opera. We were up in the gods, of course, and he was down
among the evening dresses and diamonds.”

“How did you find out his name?” Aileen asked very carefully - at least the type of carefulness she hoped would make the enquiry sound just casual.

“We saw him in the street when it was over,” Pat explained. “He was getting into one of those low-slung continental cars that you have to write about a small fortune on a cheque to get hold of. We heard people talking about him. The next day there was a photograph of the whole party that had been to the opera ... in the social pages of one of the newspapers.” She grinned teasingly at Betty. “They mentioned that he was one of Madrid’s most eligible bachelors.”

You could almost hear the cogs clicking over in Betty’s brain. “And he’s right here in this hotel,” she breathed with happy expectancy.

“And what good do you think that’s going to do you?” Aileen asked.

“Well...” Betty l
ooked dreamy. She did not need to go on.

“Hopeful, isn’t she?” Pat remarked dryly. “I suppose you have visions of him suddenly noticing the little typist and falling madly in love with her,” she said to Betty. “Those sort of things only happen in romantic novels. In real life a man like him wouldn’t even know we exist.”

Aileen glanced down at her watch. “I’m afraid I’ll have to throw you out,” she warned Pat with a smile. “I’ve got quite a fair bit to do before lunch.”

Pat nodded and glanced down at her own wristwatch. “It’s about time I was getting over to the desk anyway.”

She was part-time receptionist, working from ten o’clock to four in the afternoon, so that her husband and herself could save more quickly for the home they were trying to buy. The Southern Cross’s other receptionists were also part-time, one arriving early in the morning and the other taking over at four and remaining until quite late in the evening.

After she had gone silence settled down on the office except for the sound of the typewriters, but at lunchtime they met again at the little cafe a few doors away, a practice that had started almost a year ago when Betty had become involved with a rather undesirable group of teenagers. Pat had first taken her out to
lunch, given her a straight talking to, and thereafter made a practice of inviting her to join them, every now and again tendering little homely hints on how to grow up gracefully. The girl came from a broken home, living with a divorced father and a stepmother who did not have much interest in her.

This lunchtime, of course, the conversation somewhat naturally turned to the interesting new arrival at the Southern Cross. “What else do you know about him?” Betty demanded.

Pat’s eyes twinkled. “You’ve got it bad!” Yet she obligingly responded with what odd items of information she had picked up about him while she had been over there. “He’s got a wonderful house in Madrid and another at Marindos. That’s where he usually lives. It’s somewhere between Madrid and Granada, nearer to Granada, I think.”

Aileen felt a kind of dry amusement rise up in her, wondering what they would say if she told them that she knew quite well where the Castillo Marindos was situated - that she probably knew far more about it than Pat herself did, in spite of the fact that she had never been to Spain.

She refused to let herself be caught by any idiotic romantic thrill, yet she could not quite control that same idiotic romantic thrill that always came when she remembered the way Eric had described Madrid’s modern buildings and wide streets ... or Granada, with its wonderful Moorish architecture. Visions of vast olive groves and the sweeping slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

Betty sighed. “I wonder what it would be like to be married to a man like that - young, titled, attractive and fabulously rich.”

Pat grinned. “Sounds as if we’ll have to get out our hunting gear and trap him for you.”

Betty’s snub-nosed face broke into an answering grin. “Oh, I wasn’t thinking of him for myself.” She slanted an impish grin at Aileen. “I was really thinking of Aileen. Those intensely dark men always seem to go for blondes.”

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