The Twelve-Month Mistress

“I hurt you? If I did I’m sorry—”

“You didn’t
hurt
me! At least, not in the way you think!”

The defiant tilt to her chin was pure provocation. His heart gave a sharp kick, making his blood pound heavily through his system. He wanted to hold her close, kiss away the blaze of rejection in her eyes…

“Cassandra,
querida
, you know what you do to me.”

And what he did to her. And it was happening right now, no matter how hard she struggled against it.

His kiss was pure Joaquin. Pure enticement; pure seduction in a caress. It snatched her thoughts from her brain, reduced what was left to nothing but mush, and left her adrift on a sea of sensation—floating, melting, not knowing where she had been going or why.

Harlequin Presents
®

Proud, modern-day Spanish aristocrats—passion is their birthright!

Harlequin Presents
®
is proud to present international bestselling author Kate Walker’s new ALCOLAR FAMILY miniseries.

Meet the Alcolar Family:

Joaquin:
The first born and only legitimate Alcolar son. Can he forget his no-commitment rule and make his twelve-month mistress his wife?

Coming soon:

The Spaniard’s Inconvenient Wife
#2498
Ramon:
The beloved illegitimate son, he gets more than he bargained for in his carefully planned marriage of convenience!

Bound by Blackmail
#2504
Mercedes:
Can the only Alcolar daughter find the man who is her match?

Kate Walker is the author of more than 40 romance novels for Harlequin Presents
®
. To find out about Kate, and her forthcoming books, visit her Web site at www.kate-walker.com

Kate Walker
THE TWELVE-MONTH MISTRESS

CHAPTER ONE

T
HE
calendar hung in the middle of the wall, right where Cassie couldn’t avoid seeing it.

No matter which way she looked, it was always there, clear and obvious. In fact it almost seemed to be getting bigger, more obvious with each second that passed, the photograph of a fiesta scene instantly attracting attention with its brilliant colours, its vibrant life.

And beneath it, the dates in bold black print.

Particularly the date she didn’t want to see.

Or most longed to see. She didn’t know which way she felt right now.

Because the importance of that date wasn’t in her hands. It was in Joaquin’s control. And only his. She could do nothing about it.

Not if she wanted to avoid pushing things in a direction she didn’t want them to go.

But was it worth staying in a situation that was just not making her happy?

‘Oh, stop it!’ she told herself sharply, pushing back a strand of golden blonde hair that had fallen forward over her face, and tucking it behind her ear. ‘Leave it! You’re just going round in circles!’

As she had been doing for the last three weeks, she admitted, arching brows drawing sharply together over concerned blue eyes. Ever since the calendar had been turned to reveal the month of June and right there, in the middle of the third week, the all-important anniversary.

The anniversary that she had no idea whether Joaquin would remember and, if he did, whether he would mark it
in the way that he had done with all his other previous relationships.

By leaving.

Or, rather, telling her to leave, seeing as it was his house that they lived in.

No woman had ever lasted more than twelve months with him. After a year, sometimes even to the day, he said goodbye and walked away without a backwards glance, it seemed. And at the end of this week she would have been living with him for a year.

‘Oh, Joaquin, what are you thinking? What are you
feeling?

Would she ever be more than just a mistress to him, or was she destined to go the same way as all his other women—out of his life for good?

The sound of a key being inserted in a lock downstairs pulled her out of her thoughts and into the present moment again. Somehow she had missed the sound of the car pulling up outside and now here he was, Joaquin himself, unexpectedly early, and she would have to get herself into the right mood to greet him.

‘Cassandra!

The sound of her name, pronounced as only Joaquin could speak it, with the lilting emphasis, the faint roll of the R, floated up the stairs to her waiting ears. Ears that were straining to hear whether there was anything different about the way he used it, anything that would give her a clue as to just what sort of mood he was in. Whether he was feeling as he usually did, or if some unwanted distance, a newfound coldness had crept into his tone.

Anything that might give her warning of what was to come. Anything that would give her a couple of much-needed seconds to adjust her own mood, her own response, prepare herself if necessary.

‘Cassie!’

Oh, there was no mistaking
that
tone, she told herself wryly.

Even on the single word, the darker emphasis, the undercurrent of impatience was pure Joaquin. And, unlike most people who used the shortened version of her name as a form of affection and warmth, Joaquin Alcolar employed it as a sound of reproof, an indication that she had somehow fallen short of his expectations.

Obviously he had expected that she would have rushed to greet him, to kiss him, as he came through the door. On any other day she would have fulfilled those expectations with alacrity. But today her troubled thoughts had made her unusually slow to react.

‘Cassie! Where are you?’

‘Up here!’

She was moving as she spoke. There had been a note in his voice that had her up and out of her chair before she even had time to think. A note that went beyond his usual, ingrained belief that he had only to speak and he would be obeyed.

He was right, of course. As the eldest son of Juan Ramón Alcolar, the Spanish aristocrat who also owned and ran the Alcolar Corporation, Joaquin had been used to respect and obedience to his command, the fulfilment of every whim, from the day of his birth. And now, as owner and managing director of his own highly successful vineyard, he had increased both his status and his personal fortune two-hundredfold, so demanding even more respect than ever before.

That was why some called him
El Lobo
, lone wolf, because he had gone his own way in the world, looking to no one for help, not even his family. But there were others who changed one letter of the nickname, making it into
El Loco
, because they just couldn’t believe that anyone would turn their back on the fortune and the position his father
would have given him if he had gone into the family media business instead.

‘I’m coming!’

She wasn’t always so swift to obey him. In the past she had sometimes held out against that note of command in his voice, deliberately defying him just to rile his volatile temper. And she was one of the few, along with his younger sister Mercedes, who could get away with it.

Normally she was more than happy to provoke him if she felt he needed it, determinedly rebelling against that autocratic assumption that he had only to speak to be obeyed. But not today. Not now. Not with that all-important anniversary coming up fast and Joaquin’s mood so uncertain.

‘You’re early! I wasn’t expecting you for an hour or more.’

And she didn’t sound too pleased about it, Joaquin reflected inwardly, knowing that this was one of the reasons that had brought him home so unexpectedly. Cassandra had changed recently. Changed in ways he didn’t understand or like, and he’d hoped that by catching her unawares he might have a chance at finding out just what was going on in her mind.

‘The meeting reached the decision I wanted far sooner than I had anticipated. And I have plenty of work to do on the next project so I decided to take advantage of the fact and come home.’

His concentration had been shot anyway. His mind hadn’t been on the matter in hand and so he’d brought the meeting to an abrupt halt and headed out to his car as soon as he could. He suspected he’d broken a couple of speed limits on his way back too.

‘Why does that surprise you? Do you have a guilty conscience about something?’

‘What? No. Of course not.’

It sounded disturbingly edgy. Her voice rose and fell in
an unnatural way, making her sound as if she had something to hide.

‘It’s just that you said you wouldn’t be back until seven.’

‘Because I didn’t expect to be. I also didn’t think that you’d complain.’

‘I’m not complaining.’

She’d been like this for a couple of weeks now, growing sharper and more unpredictable with each day that passed. And nothing made her smile as she had once smiled so readily. Nothing pleased her.

That was, nothing but their time in bed. That at least hadn’t lost its appeal. If anything, his appetite seemed to have grown stronger, more passionate—though there was less of the true lover in Cassandra. A lot less of the seductive, enticing lover, and much more of an urgent demand that shook him with its intensity.

Something had gone out of their relationship and left it all the poorer for its absence.

‘I’m not complaining—it’s just unexpected.’

She had reached the top of the stairs now, looking down at where he stood at the bottom, feet planted firmly on the terracotta tiles of the hall floor, dark head tilted back so that he could look up at her.

Even from this perspective, a position that would have foreshortened and distorted a lesser man, he was imposing and forcefully stunning in a way that rocked her already precarious composure, notching her heartbeat up a pace, making her blood throb in her veins.

Hair as black as a raven’s wing, worn slightly long at the neck, matched exactly the jet darkness of his eyes. His skin was deep olive satin, tanned even more by the burning sun in this part of Jerez. He was unusually tall for a Spaniard, his height revealing his Andalusian ancestry, and the broad chest, narrow waist and long, powerful legs of his strong, lean body were sensuously enhanced by the su
perb tailoring of his pale grey suit, the white shirt underneath worn with a silvery silk tie.

The tie he had tugged loose at the throat, of course. Joaquin Alcolar might be accustomed to wearing the conventional uniform of the successful businessman when he had to, but as soon as he got home he would abandon the sophisticated veneer. He’d discard the tailored jacket, unfasten the tie and the top couple of buttons of his shirt, and transform himself from the powerful managing director into something much less formal and constrained, appearing so much more rakish, more potently virile.

‘When the meeting finished early I decided that I could get more done at home than I could in the office.’

‘You’ve come home to
work
, then?’

It shouldn’t hurt. She knew what he was like. But it did sting smartly just the same.

‘I would have thought you’d be pleased.’

‘I am.’

She sounded as if she had forced herself to say it, Joaquin reflected, the uneasy, irritated mood in which he had arrived home growing by the second. And what was she doing hovering up there at the top of the stairs when she should be coming down here, into his arms?

That was what he wanted. But just lately what he wanted and what Cassandra wanted had been totally separate things. The warm spontaneity that had taken him so much by storm had vanished, leaving in its place a cool constraint that jarred unpleasantly.

‘If this is pleased, then I don’t think I’d like to see you disappointed. You look almost as if you have something to hide. What is it,
querida
? Do you have a lover hidden away upstairs? Someone you don’t want me to see?’

He meant it to be light, joking, but his inner feelings added a darker edge that made it seem more like an attack than he had intended.

‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous!’

She was on the step just above him now, looking down into his eyes, and he saw the faintest flicker of something in their depths that made his hackles rise as her blue gaze clashed with his much darker one.

‘Why would I want a lover?’

‘Why indeed? Don’t I keep you busy enough?’

This was her cue to move into his arms, to press the softness of her cheek against the dark-shadowed skin of his, and to wind her own arms around him as she snuggled close.

To distract him from the uneasy, uncomfortable path his thoughts had been following for far too long now.

‘Cassandra?’

There it was again, that sudden unexplained smokiness in the normally brilliant blue eyes, making him want to grab at her arms, shake them, shake
her
into saying what was wrong. If anything was wrong. Because he was sure there was something.

‘Of course you do.’

Her smile was a disturbing on-off flash, withdrawn and meaningless, no real warmth in it at all.

‘More than busy.’

And at last she bent and kissed him. But it was only the brush of her lips against his cheek. There and then gone—as elusive as her mood had been so often recently.

And there was that damn smile again. A smile that was not a smile. A smile that said that her thoughts were somewhere else entirely. Not with him at all.

He hated the way that made him feel.

The next minute she had come down the final step, gently pushing past him as she moved into the hall, turning towards the kitchen.

‘I was going to make coffee. Do you want some? Or perhaps something cool. It was terribly hot when I was outside this afternoon.’

‘It’s no cooler now.’

What the hell were they doing talking about the
weather
? He used inane conversations about the climate to while away time with people he didn’t know or like. People he couldn’t get on with. Business contacts, employees—his father!

Not his mistress—the woman he lived with!

‘So not coffee, then?’

‘No!’

It was not the offer of coffee or any other drink he was referring to. He couldn’t stand the way that she was walking away from him. Not looking at him. Not even addressing him face on, but tossing the remarks back over her shoulder as if she didn’t care whether he heard her or not. ‘No!’

He moved after her, anger charging his strides, making them long, swift, furious. His hand came out, clamped over her upper arm, jolting her to a halt, whirling her round.

‘Joaquin!’

But he ignored her protest; heedless of whether he had caused it by the way his hard fingers were digging into the white flesh exposed by the sleeveless turquoise sundress. Burning dark eyes searched her face once more, wanting to probe deep into her mind, her soul, see what was hidden there.

‘No!’ he said again, though even he couldn’t have said with regard to what. He only knew that he didn’t like the way he was feeling. The way he had been feeling for too long.

The way she made him feel.

And the way he had never, ever felt in his life before.

He wanted his old way of life back. Wanted that feeling of being in control, of knowing where he was heading—what he wanted! He hated this sensation of being adrift in a rudderless boat—and all because of this woman.

‘All right, no coffee. Just what is the matter with you today?’

But he wasn’t ready to answer that.

‘Nothing. Nothing’s the matter.’

‘Then stop behaving like a bear with a sore head. I want a drink even if you don’t, so…’

Her gaze dropped to the strong, tanned fingers still clenched around her arm, then back up to his face, the reproach in them so strong that he instinctively released her, taking a step back.

‘Perdón.’

‘Okay.’

She flashed that meaningless smile once again.
Dios
, but he truly hated the insincerity of it! But then almost immediately her expression changed.

‘No, actually, it’s not okay! Not at all! There’s nothing okay about it. What do you think you’re doing—manhandling me like that?’

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