She recalled with pain her first sight of him, getting out of a stately Jaguar in front of her aunt and uncle's huge, sprawling mansion. His black hair had shone in the sun. His tall, athletic form in a staid gray suit had made him seem leaner, more imposing. As he entered the house, the impact of his liquid, coal black eyes in a handsome, blemishless dark face had caused Noreen's heart to stop dead for an instant. She'd never known such sensations in her life. She'd flushed and stammered, and Ramon had smiled almost mockingly at her momentary weakness. It had been, she recalled painfully, as if he knew that her knees had gone weak
in that instant. He was worldly, so perhaps her reaction was one to which he'd become accustomed. But God knew, amusement had been his only expression. He'd turned right away from Noreen after the quick, indifferent introduction, right back to his beautiful Isadora.
"Don't think that he noticed you at all," Isadora had said mockingly that evening, "despite the calf s eyes you were making at him. Imagine a man like that looking twice at you!" she'd added, laughing.
Noreen hadn't been able to meet those demeaning blue eyes. "I know he belongs to you, Isadora," she'd said quietly, tidying up after her cousin.
"Just remember it," came the curt reply. "I'm going to marry him."
"Does he know?" Noreen couldn't resist asking the dry question.
"Of course not," her cousin murmured absently. "But I'm going to, just the same."
And she had, only two months later, with her aunt as matron of honor and one of her set as bridesmaid.
Ramon, courteous to a fault even to strangers, had puzzled over the selection. Two days before the wedding, while Isadora enthused over her bridal gown with her mother, Ramon had paused in the doorway of the kitchen, where Noreen was taking tiny teacakes out of the oven, to ask why she wasn't participating in the wedding.
"Me?" Noreen had asked, sweating from the heat of the kitchen, where she'd been sent to make pastries for afternoon coffee.
He'd frowned at her appearance. "Do you never wear anything except jeans and those?'' he waved an expressive dark hand ''?sweatshirts?''
She'd averted her eyes. "They're comfortable for working around the house," she'd replied.
She could feel him watching her while she slid the cakes onto a china plate and placed the cookie sheet into the stainless-steel sink for washing.
"Isadora doesn't like to cook," he murmured.
"I imagine you won't mind having someone else do it," she replied uncomfortably. She hated having him even this close, she was so afraid of giving herself away. "Anyway, Isadora's much too pretty to waste time on domestic chores."
"Are you jealous of her," he'd asked, "because she's pretty and you aren't?"
The mocking tone of the question had brought her pale gray eyes up flashing. She almost never talked back, but he seemed to bring out latent temper in her that she hadn't realized she possessed.
She remembered standing up straight, glaring at him from a face flushed with heat and temper, her dark blond hair hanging in limp ringlets from the bun atop her head. "Thank you so much for reminding me of the qualities I lack. I don't suppose it would occur to you that I'm capable of looking in a mirror?'' His eyes had sparkled, for the first time, at her. His eyelids had come down over that glitter and he'd stared at her until her unruly heart had gone crazy in her chest.
"So you're not quite a doormat, then?" he'd prompted.
"No, no soy," she replied in the perfect Spanish she'd been taught in school, "y usted, senor, no es ningun cabellero.''
His eyebrows had gone up with her assertion that he was no gentleman. "Que sorpresa eres,'' he mur-
mured, making her flush again with the intimacy of the familiar tense - only used between close friends or relatives - when she'd used the formal. What a surprise you are! he'd said.
"Why, because I can speak Spanish?" she asked in English.
He smiled, for once without sarcasm. "Isadora can't. Not yet, at least. I intend to teach her the most necessary words. Of course, those aren't used in public."
From a distance of years, she looked back with faint curiosity at the way he'd taunted her with his feelings for Isadora. It had been that way from the beginning. It grew much worse as the couple celebrated their first anniversary.
Noreen hadn't ever been sure why she was invited to the party. She hadn't planned to go, either, but Ramon had sent a car for her.
Hal and Mary Kensington welcomed her enthusiastically in front of their guests, and then ignored her. Isadora seemed furious to see her there and had pulled her to one side during Ramon's brief absence, with curling fingers whose nails had almost broken the surface of her skin.
"What are you doing here?" she'd demanded furiously. "I didn't invite you to my anniversary celebration!"
"Ramon insisted," Noreen said through her teeth.
"He sent a car."
The other woman's delicate blond brows arched. "I see," she murmured. She dropped her cousin's arm abruptly. "He's getting even," she added with a harsh laugh. "Just because I had Larry over to dinner
while he was away operating in New York." She shifted abruptly. "Well, he's never home, what does he expect me to do, sit on my hands?" Her eyes ran over Noreen angrily. "Don't imagine that he sees stars when he looks at you, sweetie," she continued hotly. "He only made you come so that he could make me jealous."
Noreen had caught her breath. "But, that's crazy," she'd said, choking. "For heaven's sake, Isadora, he doesn't even like me! He cuts at me all the time!"
The other woman's deep blue eyes had narrowed. "You don't understand at all, do you?" she'd asked absently. "You're such a child, Norie."
Ramon had come into the kitchen then, his face hard. "Why are you hiding in here?" he asked Isadora. "We have guests."
"Yes, don't we?" she replied with a pointed look at Noreen. "I should have asked Larry," she added.
Ramon's eyes had flashed furiously. Isadora darted under his arm and back to her guests, leaving Ramon with only Noreen to take his burst of temper out on.
And he had.
"The charlady, in person," he'd commented coldly, glaring at her eternal jeans and sweatshirt. "You couldn't wear a dress for the occasion?"
"I didn't want to come," she replied furiously. "You made me!"
"God knows why," he returned with another cold survey of her person.
She couldn't think of anything to say to him. She felt and looked out of place.
He'd moved closer and she'd backed away. The
expression on his face had been priceless. Sadly, her instinctive action had led to something even worse.
"Do I repulse you?" he'd murmured, coming closer until she was backed to the sink. "Amazing, that such a shadow of a woman would refuse any semblance of ardent notice on the part of a man, even a repulsive man."
She'd shivered at his tone and crossed her arms across her sweatshirt defensively. "A married man." She'd hurled the words at him.
His hands had clenched by his side, although the words had the desired effect. He made no more movements toward her. His eyes had searched hers, demanding answers she couldn't give.
"Maid of all work," he'd taunted, "cook and housekeeper and doer of small tasks. Don't you ever get tired of sainthood?''
She'd swallowed. "I'd like to go now, please." His chest had risen sharply. "Where would you like to go? Away from me?"
"You're married to my cousin," she'd said through her teeth, fighting down an attraction that made her sick all over.
"Of course I am, house sparrow," he'd replied. "That beautiful, charming woman with the saintly face and body is all mine. Other men are sick with jealousy of what I have. Isadora, bright and beautiful, with my ring on her finger."
"Yes, she is...lovely." She'd choked. His fury had been a little intimidating. Those black eyes were like swords, cutting at her. He hated her, and she knew it. Only she didn't know why. She'd never hurt him.
He'd moved aside then, with that innate courtesy and formality that was part of him.
"I grew up in a barrio in Havana," he murmured quietly. "My parents struggled to get through college, to educate themselves enough to get out of the poverty. When we came to the States, we rose in position and wealth, but I haven't forgotten my beginnings. Part of me has nothing but contempt for those people in there?'' he jerked his head toward the living room "?content in their pure country club environment, ignorant of the ways poverty can twist a soul."