1950’s London. Alexandra, a young writer is bored of her suffocating but privileged life amongst the gilded balls and parties of Chelsea. Keen for an adventure, Alexandra travels to Spain to be reunited with her estranged Spanish family on a huge estate in Andalucía.
Arriving in sun-drenched southern Spain for the first time, Alexandra is soon caught up in the wild customs of the region. From bull fighting matadors and the mysterious Gypsy encampments in the grounds of the family’s estate, to the passionate dances of the region and the incredible horsemanship of the local caballeros, Alexandra is instantly seduced by the drama and passion of her new home.
When Alexandra inevitably falls for Salvador, the mercurial heir to her family’s estate and the region’s most eligible man, she finds herself entangled in a web of secrets, lies and indiscretion. Alexandra soon falls prey to scheming members of her own family, the jealousy of a beautiful marquésa and the predatory charms of a toreador, all intent on keeping the two lovers apart.
But nothing can prepare Alexandra for Salvador’s own dangerous liaisons with a dark-eyed Gypsy.
Can Alexandra trust that love will triumph, or will Salvador’s indiscretion be their undoing?
For the week leading up to the masked ball, confusion had reigned on the ground floor at El Pavón. Servants had shifted out furniture, rolled up carpets, prepared tables for the buffet in the dining room, and chandeliers, wall sconces, columns and cornices had been decorated with garlands of bright roses interspersed with jasmine and orange blossom from the garden. As the evening began, and the sweeping strings of ballroom music filled the hacienda, El Pavón seemed transformed into a magical palace.
Although the ball was in full swing as dusk gave way to night, cars were still arriving. They stopped at the foot of the stairs with a rasp of gravel and young drivers in dark-grey suits and caps leapt out to open the doors.
In the garden, an array of colourful lanterns hung from arbours, dangled between fruit trees, encircling the fountains and pools, twinkling with light. While in the great ballroom, overlooking the east-facing gardens, Doña María Dolores’ guests, attired in all sorts of disguises, drank, joked and glided happily on the polished oak dancefloor.
The ballroom was long and rectangular, taking up the entire length of the house. At each end, French doors opened out on to terraces stocked with exotic plants. Down one side, more windows led to the wide green lawn at the side of the hacienda. High mirrors hung between the windows, framed with gilded beading. Supported on marble columns was a gallery with a wrought-iron balustrade where musicians in evening dress were playing romantic dance melodies from tangos to Viennese waltzes.
Alexandra paused on the threshold of the vast room, a trifle overwhelmed by the grand spectacle. All the guests wore masks of velvet, satin or lace, giving them a mysterious air. She watched for a moment as Ondine, Goddess of the Northern Seas, leant against a column, lost in a dream, her head slightly tilted to one side. In her long tunic of turquoise silk sprinkled with iridescent sequins, she appeared to have just risen from the depths of the ocean, her beautiful golden hair draped gracefully about her bare shoulders. A torero in black silk breeches, drawn in at the hips, with a waistcoat brocaded with silk, knee-length stockings and shiny flat shoes, gazed at her. Just as he had decided to approach, another gallant figure, Oreste, bearing his father’s sword in his belt, swooped in first and, bowing deeply before her, drew her on to the dancefloor. They passed a maharani wearing a magnificent sari of dark gold brocade, who was walking towards the veranda arm-in-arm with a American Indian in a headdress of multi-coloured feathers and a jacket of brown suede.
A hand tapped Alexandra’s shoulder. Startled, she turned, almost bumping into a couple of waiters carrying trays laden with appetizing tapas and small glasses of fino sherry. The intruder was a musketeer in a wide soft hat, loose breeches and a leather doublet. A black mask hid his twinkling eyes but she recognized the beaming smile.
‘Well, Cousin,’ he said cheerfully, ‘I didn’t have to search very long to find the most beautiful girl at the ball. I told you I could spot you under any disguise.’
She smiled at Ramón, happy to find a friend in this sea of masked strangers, but it was difficult to concentrate on what he was saying. Her eyes were scouring the dancefloor, eagerly scrutinizing the whirling couples from behind her velvet mask. What, or more precisely who, was she looking for, exactly? After all, she knew nothing of the mysterious Conde, except that he had a deep and seductive voice. Recalling it made her pulse run faster and her knees slightly weak. Could the peculiar episode at Mascaradas have been merely a foolish jest designed to mystify her? Surely Old Jaime would not have taken part in a practical joke? She started with indignation at the idea she might be the victim of some prank. Yet, the more she thought about it, the more that seemed improbable. It would be an expensive joke to play, after all. No, the sheer cost of her beautiful costume had to be proof of the generosity and admiration of her romantic stranger.
As the evening progressed and there was still no sign of the mysterious Conde, Alexandra was forced to admit that she must have been the victim of a practical joke. It was gone eleven o’clock, surely he would have shown up by now if he was going to? Putting aside her disappointment, she told herself it had all been merely a captivating puzzle, one that had fired her romantic imagination and aroused her yearning for adventure, nothing more. At least she had some ideas for her new hero, she reminded herself, and decided to enter fully into the festive spirit, now that she had given up on her elusive stranger.
She didn’t notice the oriental prince, wearing a costume similar in style and colour to her own, observing her quizzically from a far-off corner of the room.
A pierrot in a black-and-white silk suit with a collar of pleated tulle and a bonnet decorated with black pompons asked Alexandra for a dance. She allowed him to move her around the dancefloor, with only half an ear on the eager conversation he was making as she took in the sea of colourful guests. It was almost midnight. Don Felipe was paying court to a shepherdess in a crinoline gown. Further along the room Mercedes, disguised as a bluebell, wearing a crown of tiny blue flowers and a dress with a bodice of green velvet and an organdie skirt, with petals of periwinkle blue, was squabbling with Electra, who was sulking in a corner. Isis and Osiris were discussing something with a pretty redhead in Savoy costume.
Alexandra was once again aware of the pierrot, who drew her closer to him. ‘Soon it will be midnight,’ he whispered into her ear, ‘and the lights will go out—’
‘Excuse me señor, I’ve come to collect my wife,’ interrupted a deep, warm voice. Alexandra smothered a gasp. Her heart gave such a jolt she thought it might leap out of her mouth.
The first notes of a Strauss waltz began. Before she could recover, the stranger swung Alexandra into his arms, holding her so tightly to him she was unable to lift her head to see his face. The blood pounded in her veins. She was conscious of his strong, sinuous length against her and the turmoil of her own body as his warmth soaked into her, adding to the heat welling up inside her like a furnace. Her temple brushed against his jaw; his skin was smooth. He smelled of soap, mint and tobacco, indefinably masculine. As they twirled around the dancefloor, Alexandra was carried away by an overpowering tide that left her light-headed, almost breathless. It was as though she were under a spell, a bewitching charm of the mind and senses that had no place in the dictionary of her experience.
Eventually, the giddy whirlwind ended and they found themselves on the terrace. In contrast to the brightly lit ballroom they had left, it was bathed in an almost unreal, diaphanous light from the moon and the glowing lanterns in the trees. They waltzed in silence for a few more minutes, taking in the melancholy softness of the night.
‘I owe you an apology for stepping in just now but I could see no other way of tearing you away from the arms of your too-forward partner,’ he said, in those same ardent, deep tones that had so haunted Alexandra over the past few days.
She caught her breath, unable to reply immediately and all the while hoping he wasn’t aware of the urgent beating of her heart. He still held on to her firmly and she could only look up at him with a smile. The moon disappeared behind a cloud, shadowing his features.
The stranger was almost a head taller than Alexandra. Under his light cloak she could see that his costume was very much like hers. It was in a similar cloth of pure, ivory-coloured silk, yet less decorated. His head was clad in a plain turban, which entirely concealed his hair. In the wide faja, the silk band that clasped his waist, he had placed a navaja, much like the ones Alexandra had noticed at the station in Puerto de Santa María on the day of her arrival, the difference being his was set with genuine precious stones. His shoulders were broad; his embrace firm and close.
As a shaft of moonlight fell briefly on his face, Alexandra’s heart missed a beat. In spite of the half-shadow and the narrow mask shielding his tanned features, she recognized the stranger she had seen on the seafront and then in the Church of Santa María: the man on the prayer stool who had so deeply disturbed her. So it was the same man after all. One man who now made something inside her thrill deliciously at his nearness.
Somewhere far off, a clock struck midnight. An owl hooted, as if in response. The air was fragrant with the sweet smell of jasmine and orange blossom. Masks fell and shouts of joy burst from all sides under a shower of confetti.
The oriental prince leaned his head forward towards his sultana.
‘Will you allow me, señorita?’ he whispered, his lean fingers with infinite gentleness removing her velvet mask. His gaze delved deeply into her large, glowing green irises, reading the emotion in her upturned face as her body yielded helplessly to his touch. A rush of blood coursed wildly through Alexandra’s veins as his hand once more slipped about her waist, pausing before pulling her against him.
Hannah Fielding bio
Hannah Fielding is an incurable romantic. The seeds for her writing career were sown in early childhood, spent in Egypt, when she came to an agreement with her governess Zula: for each fairy story Zula told, Hannah would invent and relate one of her own. Years later – following a degree in French literature, several years of travelling in Europe, falling in love with an Englishman, the arrival of two beautiful children and a career in property development – Hannah decided after so many years of yearning to write that the time was now. Today, she lives the dream: writing full time at her homes in Kent, England, and the South of France, where she dreams up romances overlooking breath-taking views of the Mediterranean.
To date, Hannah has published three novels: Burning Embers, ‘romance like Hollywood used to make’, set in Kenya, 1970; the award-winning Echoes of Love, ‘an epic love story that is beautifully told’ set in turn-of-the-millennium Italy; and Indiscretion, her fieriest novel yet, set in 1950s Spain.