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It was his. All his. Almost his, for tomorrow he had an appointment to sign the papers transferring the ownership of the Corretti Hotel Palermo from Corretti Enterprises to Corretti International. Angelo Corretti's mouth twisted at the irony. From one Corretti to another. Or not.
Slowly he strolled through the hotel lobby, watching the bellhops catch sight of him, their eyes widening before they straightened to attention. A middle-aged woman at the concierge desk eyed him apprehensively, clearly waiting to spring into action if summoned. He hadn't been formally introduced to any of the hotel staff, but he had no doubt they knew who he was. He'd been in and out of the Corretti offices for nearly a week, arranging meetings with the major shareholders who had no choice but to hand over the reins of the flagship hotel in view of their CEO's absence and Angelo's controlling shares.
It had, in the end, all been so gloriously simple. Leave the Correttis alone for a little while and they'd tear themselves apart. They just couldn't help it.
'Sir? Signor Corretti?' The concierge finally approached him, her heels clicking across the marble floor of the soaring foyer. Angelo heard how she stumbled over his name, because of course everyone knew the Correttis here, and in all of Sicily. They were the most powerful and scandalous family in southern Italy. And he wasn't one of them. Except he was.
He felt his mouth twist downwards as that all too familiar and futile rage coursed through him. He was one of them, but he had neverand never would beacknowledged as one, even if everyone knew the truth of his birth. Even if everyone in the village he'd grown up in, from the time he was a little boy and barely understood it himself, had known he was Carlo Corretti's bastard and made his life hell because of it.
He turned to the concierge, forcing his mouth upwards into a smile. 'Yes?'
'Is there anything I can do for you?' she asked, and he saw the uncertainty in her eyes, the fear that he'd come in here and sweep it all clean. And part of him was tempted to do just that. Every single person who worked here had been loyal to the family he despised and was determined to ruin. Why shouldn't he fire them all, bring in his own people?
'No, thank you, Natalia.' He'd glanced at her discreet, silver-plated name tag before meeting her worried gaze with a faint smile. 'I'll just go to my room.' He'd booked the penthouse suite for tonight, intending to savour staying in the best room of his enemy's best hotel. The room he knew for a fact was reserved almost exclusively for Matteo Corretti's use, except since the debacle of the called-off Corretti/Battaglia wedding, Matteo was nowhere to be seen. He wouldn't be using the suite even if he could, which from tomorrow he couldn't.
No Corretti, save for himself, would ever stay in this hotel again.
'Certainly, Signor Corretti.' She spoke his name more surely now, but it felt like a hollow victory. He'd always been a Corretti, had claimed the name for his own even though the man who had fathered him had never admitted to it or him. Even though using that name had earned him more black eyes and bloody noses than he cared to remember. It was his, damn it, and he'd earned it. He'd earned all of this.
With one last cool smile for the concierge, he turned towards the bank of gleaming lifts and pressed the button for the penthouse. It was nearly midnight, and the foyer was deserted except for a skeleton staff. The streets outside one of Palermo's busiest squares had emptied out, and Angelo hadn't seen anyone on his walk here from his temporary offices a few blocks away.
Yet as he soared upwards towards the hotel's top floor and its glittering, panoramic view of the city and harbour, Angelo knew he was too wired and restless to sleep. Sleep, at the best times, had always been difficult; he often only caught two or three hours in a night, and that not always consecutively. The rest of the time he worked or exercised, anything to keep his body and brain moving, doing.
The doors opened directly into the suite that covered the entire top floor. Angelo stepped inside, his narrowed gaze taking in all the luxurious details: the marble floor, the crystal chandelier, the expensive antiques and art. The lights had been turned down and he glimpsed a wide king-size bed in the suite's master bedroom, the navy silk duvet turned down to reveal the six hundred thread count sheets underneath.
He dropped his key card onto a side table and loosened his tie, shed his jacket. He felt the beginnings of a headache, the throbbing at his temples telling him he'd be facing a migraine in a couple of hours. Migraines and insomnia were just two of the prices he'd had to pay for how hard he'd worked, how much he'd achieved, and he paid them willingly. He'd pay just about anything to be where he was, who he was. Successful, powerful, with the ability to pull the sumptuous rug out from under the Correttis' feet.
He strolled through the suite, the lights of the city visible and glittering from the floor-to-ceiling windows. The living area was elegant if a bit too stuffy for his taste, with some fussy little chairs and tables, a few ridiculous-looking urns. He'd have a refit of the whole hotel first thing, he decided as he plucked a grape from the bowl of fresh fruit on the coffee table, another fussy piece of furniture, with fluted, gold-leaf edges. He'd bring this place up to date, modern and cutting edge. It had been relying on the distinctly tattered Corretti name and a faded elegance for far too long.
Restless, his head starting to really pound, he continued to prowl through the suite, knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep yet unwilling to sit down and work. This was the eve of his victory after all. He should be celebrating.
Unfortunately he had no one to celebrate with in this town. He hadn't made any friends here in the eighteen years he'd called Sicily home, only enemies.
You made one friend.
The thought slid into his mind, surprising and sweet, and he stilled his restless pacing of the suite's living area.
Lucia. He tried not to think of her, because thinking of her was remembering and remembering made him wonder. Wish. Regret.
And he never regretted anything. He wouldn't regret the one night he'd spent in her arms, burying himself so deep inside her he'd almost forgotten who he wasand who he wasn't.
For a few blissful hours Lucia Anturri, the neighbour's daughter he'd ignored and appreciated in turns, with the startling blue eyes that mirrored her heart, had made him forget all the anger and pain and emptiness he'd ever felt.
And then he'd slipped away from her while she was sleeping and gone back to his life in New York, to the man of purpose and determination and anger that he'd always be, because damn it, he didn't want to forget.
Not even for one night.
Even more restless now, that old anger surging through him, Angelo jerked open the buttons of his shirt. He'd take a long, hot shower. Sometimes that helped with the headaches, and at least it was something to do.
He was in the process of shedding his shirt as he came into the bedroom and to an abrupt halt. A bucket of ice with a bottle of champagne chilling inside was by the bedand so was a woman.
Lucia froze at the sight of the half-dressed man in front of her, three freshly laundered towels pressed to her hard-beating heart.
She knew, had always known, that she would see him again, and occasionally she'd embroidered ridiculous, romantic fantasies about how it would happen. Stupid, schoolgirl dreams. She hadn't done that for years though, and she'd never imagined this.
Running into him without a second's notice, totally unprepared
She'd heard whispers that he was back in Sicily but she had assumed they were, as they'd always been, mere rumours, and she'd never expected to see him here.
From just one shocked glimpse of him standing there, his hair rumpled and his shirt half undone, she knew he didn't recognise her. Meanwhile in the space of a few seconds she was reliving every glorious and agonising moment she'd spent with him that one night seven years ago, the feel of his satiny skin, the desperate press of his lips against hers.
Such thoughts were clearly the furthest from his mind. His eyes had narrowed, his lips thinned, and he looked angry. She recognised that look, for God knew she'd seen it enough over the fraught years of their childhood. Yet even angry he was beautiful, the most beautiful man she'd ever known.
Known and loved.
Swallowing, she pushed that most unhelpful thought away. She hadn't seen Angelo in seven years. She didn't love him any more, and she absolutely knew he'd never loved her.
Which, of course, shouldn't hurt all this time later, yet in that unguarded moment as she stared at him, his shirt hanging open to reveal the taut, golden expanse of his chest, she knew it did.
Angelo arched an eyebrow, obviously annoyed, clearly waiting. For what? An apology? Did he expect her to do the little chambermaid stammering act and scurry away?
Two desires, both deep-seated, warred within her. On one hand she felt like telling Angelo Corretti exactly what she thought of him for sneaking out of her bed seven years ago. Except she didn't even know what that was, because she thought of Angelo in so many ways. Desire and despair. Hope and hatred. Love and loss.
In any case, the far more sensible impulse she had was to leave this room before he recognised her, before any awful, awkward reunion scenarios could play out. They may have been childhood friends, he may have been her first and only lover, but she was next to nothing to him, and always had beena shaming fact she did not need reminding of tonight.
'I'm sorry,' she said, lowering her head just a little so her hair fell in front of her face. 'I was just getting your room ready for the night. I'll be out of your way.'
She started to move past him, her head still lowered, hating the ache this simple, terrible exchange opened up inside her. It was an ache she'd had for so long that she'd become numb to it, learned to live with it the way you might a missing limb or a permanent scar. Yet now, in Angelo's uncaring presence, she felt it throb painfully to life and for a second, furious with herself, she had to blink back tears.
She was just about to slip past him when his hand curled around her arm, jolting her so hard and deep she almost stumbled.
She stilled, her heart hammering, her breath caught in her chest. Angelo let go of her arm and walked towards the bed.
'I'm celebrating, you know,' he said, but he didn't sound like he was. He sounded as sardonic and cynical as he'd ever been. Lucia tensed, her back to him, her face angled away. He still didn't recognise her, and that realisation gave her equal parts relief and deep disappointment.
'Why don't you celebrate with me,' he continued, clearly a command, and she stiffened. Was this what he'd become? The kind of man who solicited the housekeeping? 'Just a drink,' he clarified, and now he sounded coolly amused as he popped the cork on the complimentary bottle of champagne that always came with the penthouse suite. 'Since nobody else is here.'
Lucia turned around slowly, her whole body rigid. She had no idea how to act. What to say. This had gone on way too long for her to keep pretending she was a stranger, and yet
Maybe that's what she was to him now. A stranger.
He was pouring the champagne into two crystal flutes, his mouth twisted downwards, and something in the shuttered bleakness of his expression called to that ache deep inside her, the ache she'd been trying so hard and for so long to ignore. When he looked like that it reminded her of when he'd shown up on her doorstep seven years ago, when he'd stared at her so bleakly, so blankly, and his voice had broken as he'd confessed, 'He's dead, Lucia. And I don't feel anything.'
She hadn't thought then; she'd just drawn him inside by the hand, led him to the shabby little living room of the house she'd grown up in and where she then lived alone.
And started somethinga single nightthat had changed her life for ever.
She swallowed now, forced herself to lift her chin and look him in the eye. She saw him tense, felt it, one hand still outstretched, a flute of fizzing champagne clasped between his long, lean fingers.
'All right, Angelo,' she said, and thankfully her voice remained steady. 'I'll have a drink with you.'
Angelo stood completely motionless, his hand still outstretched. The only sound in the room was the gentle fizz of the champagne's bubbles popping against the sides of the crystal flute and his own suddenly ragged breathing.
How could he not have recognised her? How could he have not known her from the moment he'd seen her in his suite? The first thought that seared his brain now was the completely irrelevant realisation of how blue her eyes were, so startling against her dark hair and olive skin. How wide and clear and open they'd always been, open to him.
Then chasing the heels of that poignant memory was a far more bitter realisationand with it a dawning fury.
'You work for them? Those sciacalli?'
Her chin tilted up a notch and those blue, blue eyes flashed even bluer. 'If you mean am I employed at this hotel, then the answer is yes.'
Another thing he'd forgotten: the low, husky timbre of her voice, sounding sensual and smoky and still so tender and sweet. He had a sudden, painfully clear recollection of her asking him in that same low voice what he'd expected to feel that night, the night of his father's funeral, what he'd wanted to feel. He'd answered in a ragged gulp that just stopped short of a sob, 'Satisfaction. Happiness. Something. I just feel empty.'
She hadn't replied, just put her arms around him, and he'd turned into her embrace, burying his head in the sweet curve of her neck before his lips had found hers, seeking and needing the total acceptance and understanding she'd always so freely given.
And now she worked for the Correttis? The family who had made his childhood a living hell? He shook his head slowly, his head throbbing so hard his vision blurred. 'So what, you're on your knees for them? Scrubbing their filth, bobbing a curtsey when they come by? What happened to your promise, Lucia?'
'My promise,' she repeated, her voice completely expressionless.
He pressed one fist against his temple, closed his eyes briefly against the pain that thundered in his headand in his heart. 'Do you not even remember? You promised me you'd never even talk to them'
'As a matter of fact, Angelo, I don't talk to them. I'm a chambermaid, one of dozens. They don't even know my name.'
'So that excuses'
'Do you really want to talk about excuses?' she asked levelly, and he opened his eyes, pressed his fist harder against his temple. Damn it, his head hurt. And even in the midst of his shock and pain he recognised how ridiculous he was being. She'd made those silly promises when she was a child, a girl of no more than eleven or twelve. He remembered the moment, stupidly. He'd been jumped on his way back to school, beaten bloody but he'd come up swinging as always. She'd been waiting on her doorstep, her heart in her eyes. She'd tried to comfort him, and in his hurt pride and anger he'd shrugged her off.