Spanish Groom(6)

By: Lynne Graham

'I have not the slightest interest in hearing a sob story,' Cesar Valverde delivered deflatingly as he lounged back against his desk again, his impossibly tall, lean and powerful length taking up a formidably relaxed pose.

'But I want to explain—'

"There is no need for you to explain anything. Debts of that nature are self-explanatory. You have a taste for living above your means and you like to party—'

Cringing at the knowledge that he knew about those shameful debts in her name, and her equally shameful inability to settle them, Dixie broke back into speech. Wo, Mr Valverde. I—'

'If you interrupt me again, I won't offer you my assistance,' Cesar Valverde interposed with icy bite. _Struggling to understand that assurance, Dixie tipped back her wildly curly head and gaped at him. 'Assistance?' she stressed blankly.

'I'm prepared to offer you another form of employment.'

In complete confusion, Dixie blinked.

'But if you take on the role, it will entail a great deal of hard work and effort on your part.'

Sinking ever deeper into bewilderment, but ready to snatch at any prospect of continuing employment like a drowning swimmer snatches at a branch, Dixie nodded eagerly. 'I'm not afraid of hard work, Mr Valverde.'

Obviously he was talking about demoting her. Where did you go from office junior? Dixie wondered frantically. Scrubbing the floors in the canteen kitchen?

Cesar sent her a gleaming glance. 'You're really not in a position to turn my offer down.'

'I know,' Dixie acknowledged with total humility, suddenly starting to squirm at the reality of how much she had always disliked him. Evidently she had completely misjudged Cesar Valverde's character. Even though he had a legitimate excuse to sack her, he seemed to be willing to give her another chance. And if that meant scrubbing the canteen kitchen floor, she ought to say thank you from the bottom of her heart and get on with it.

'Jasper hasn't been well.'

The switch in subject disconcerted Dixie. Her strained face shadowed. 'By what he's said in his letters he still hasn't quite got over that chest trouble he had in the spring.'

Cesar looked grim. 'His heart is weak.'

Dixie's eyes prickled. That news was too much on top of all her other worries. Her stinging eyes overflowed and she dug into the pocket of her skirt to find a tissue. But the horrible news about Jasper did make sudden sense of Cesar Valverde's uncharacteristic tolerance, and his apparent willingness to allow her to remain in his employment by fixing her up with another job. He might not approve of her, or of her friendship with Jasper Dysart, but clearly he respected his godfather's fondness for her. Presumably that was why he wasn't going to kick her when she was already down. 'At his age, Jasper can't hope to go on for ever,' Cesar gritted, his unease with her emotional breakdown blatant and icily reproving.

Fighting to compose herself, Dixie blew her nose and sucked in a deep, steadying breath. 'Will he be coming over to London this summer?'

'I shouldn't think so.'

Then she would never see Jasper again, she registered on a powerful tide of pain and regret. The struggle to stay abreast of the debts Petra had left behind made a trip to Spain as out of reach as a trip to the moon.

'It's time we got down to business,' Cesar drawled with perceptible impatience. 'I need a favour, and in return for that favour I'm prepared to settle your debts.'

'Settle my debts...what favour?' Dixie echoed, all at sea as to what he could possibly be talking about and stunned by the idea of him offering to pay off those appalling bills. A favour? What sort of favour? How could her staying employed in any capacity within the Valverde Mercantile Bank be any kind of a favour to Cesar Valverde?

Cesar moved restively away from the desk and strode over to the window, the clear light of early summer guttering over his luxuriant hair and hard, classic profile. 'In all probability, Jasper doesn't have long to live,' he spelt out harshly. 'His dearest wish has always been that I should marry. At this present time I have no intention of fulfilling that wish, but I would very much like to please him with a harmless fiction.'

A harmless fiction? Dixie's bemusement increased as she strained to grasp his meaning.

'And that is where you come in,' Cesar informed her drily. 'Jasper likes you. He's very shy with your sex, and as a result he only warms to a certain type of woman. Your type. Jasper would be overjoyed if I announced that we had got engaged.'

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