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Closer Than She Thinks
By Meryl Sawyer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 M. Sawyer-Unickel
All rights reserved.
Ten Days Later: Florence, Italy
The air along the narrow cobbled streets was fragrant with the scents of spring in the city. The smell of blossoms tumbling from window boxes combined with the aroma of fresh-baked bread while a trace of mildew seeped out of the cracked stone of the ancient buildings. A cat's paw of a wind delivered a moist whiff of the dank Arno River. The setting sun darkened the mazelike streets and cast the thick plank doorways in shadows that appeared ominous to those who did not realize the forbidding entrances concealed elegant palazzos with formal courtyards.
Ghosts from centuries ago when Florence had given birth to the Renaissance now kept watch on their beloved city from behind the cloistered walls. Dante. Michelangelo. The Medicis. Their spirits had long departed, but they had marked Florence for all time, bestowing on it a priceless treasure of art and architecture.
Along with this legacy came an aura of mystery and intrigue.
This mysterious quality had captivated Alyssa Rossi from the moment she'd first come to live with her aunt over a decade ago. Like her hometown of New Orleans, Florence was a unique place with history, charm ... dark secrets.
But today Alyssa's mind wasn't on either city. She was too preoccupied with a business proposition to even notice the colorful skiffs drifting down the Arno or the throngs of scooters zipping by her in the gathering dusk.
Harry's Bar was more crowded than usual when Alyssa angled her way inside. Being taller than average gave her an advantage, and she caught Mario's eye immediately. The bartender smiled, his insider's smile, not the vapid grin reserved for the tourists who made the bar one of their stops just as they did the Pitti Palace or the Uffuzi Museum.
The bartender winked and inclined his head toward the sidewalk terrace overlooking the river. Alyssa had called ahead to request Aunt Thee's favorite table. No matter how packed the bar and adjacent café was, Mario always reserved this special table for his old friend, Theodora Rossi Canali.
"Ciao. Come stai?" the waiter greeted Alyssa, recognizing her as a regular.
Alyssa smiled, replied she was well, and sat down, taking care not to rumple her clothes. She had to meet Burt Anders in less than two hours. She didn't want to look as frazzled as she felt when she joined the American businessman for dinner. Adjusting the vibrant rose and lime green scarf around her shoulders, she sensed someone watching her, trying to get her attention.
An Italian man, she decided without looking up. Harry's Bar was a tourists' haunt, but a number of local men stopped by for a drink after work, hoping to get lucky. To Italian men, flirting wasn't just a means of picking up women, it was a way of life. They did it with charm and a sense of humor that Alyssa usually enjoyed, but not this evening.
Mario sent over two glasses of Campari in the crystal goblets he kept under the counter for special customers. Alyssa sipped hers, watching the entrance for her aunt. It wasn't like Aunt Thee to be late, but Alyssa had to admit her aunt was slowing down. Her seventy-fifth birthday was less than a week away. Of course, Aunt Thee didn't have the energy she did years ago when Alyssa had left New Orleans in disgrace with the only person on earth who believed her.
"Signorina," the waiter spoke to her in Italian, his voice low. "The gentleman at the bar would like to buy your drink."
Alyssa answered without looking toward the bar that had been a gathering place for American travelers since Hemingway had made it famous. She realized her shoulder-length blond hair and hazel eyes complemented her tall, slim figure. Most women would envy her, but Alyssa wasn't impressed. The world was full of women who were truly beautiful.
It was her talent that had Alyssa worried, not her looks. Was she ready to take the gamble? Was she ready for the big time?
"Sorry, I'm late."
Alyssa jumped up and gave her aunt a hug. "Is everything all right?" she asked as the older woman sank into the chair opposite her.
The glow of the setting sun burnished Aunt Thee's pewter hair, softening the steel-gray color and bringing amber light to her dark brown eyes. A skein of fine lines netted the corners of Aunt Thee's eyes, saying she'd smiled often. Deep brackets on either side of her full mouth confirmed her good nature.
Despite her congenial manner, Theodora Canali could be serious when necessary. She had a head for business, and had proven it by investing in talented designers in Milan years ago on the eve of its becoming a fashion mecca. Alyssa was counting on her aunt's business acumen to help her make this decision about her own company.
Alyssa tried not to be impatient as she waited for her aunt to drink her Campari, but the years she'd spent in Italy hadn't tempered her enough. She was still an American at heart and found it difficult to adjust her attitude. She was driven, and it was hard for her to live in the moment and enjoy life the relaxed way Italians did.
"Well," she finally asked. "Tell me what you think of TriTech's offer."
Aunt Thee set down her glass, saying, "Take it."
"Take it?" Alyssa repeated, stunned. In the years she'd been with Thee, the older woman had always played the devil's advocate, debating each decision with Alyssa, yet allowing Alyssa to reach her own conclusion.
"Yes. Accept TriTech's offer. Isn't this what you want? Are you going to allow know-nothings to knock off your designs forever?"
Alyssa shrugged, then signaled Mario for more Campari. Rossi Designs, her costume jewelry line, was the most innovative in Italy. Her special creations were being copied ruthlessly. The second she sketched a design, someone was duplicating it.
"Of course I want credit for my jewelry, but I'm concerned about becoming part of a big corporation. TriTech sounds like a software company or something techie. Will they understand the fashion world?"
"I read the documents you sent to me. This appears to be a fabulous offer. Before you accept, find out more about the owners of the company. Then, well, you know what I always say."
"'Get it in writing.'" Alyssa smiled at her aunt, but knew enough to ask, "What's the real reason you want me to accept this deal?"
Aunt Thee drained her glass. "It's time for you to go home."
"Home? This is my home. I'm happy here."
Aunt Thee's dark brown eyes were steady. "It's time for us both to return to New Orleans."
Alyssa didn't know if she had the mental fortitude to go back to the city she left after nearly being arrested. It would mean facing her past. It would mean she would be confronted by Phoebe Duvall.
It would also mean she would have to avoid the man she once had loved — Clay Duvall.
"Why go back there?" she asked her aunt. "I'm happy here."
"Are you really happy, or are you merely existing?"
Alyssa rushed down the winding side street toward the Piazza della Repubblica, where the Savoy Hotel was located. Her aunt's question still drifted through her mind. Alyssa believed she was happy, but just the thought of Clay Duvall brought a hollow ache deep in her chest. After what he'd done, how could she still miss him?
She forced her thoughts to the acquisition offer. Was Aunt Thee correct? Did TriTech expect Alyssa to move Rossi Designs to New Orleans, where the corporation had its headquarters?
Nothing in TriTech's offer suggested this was the case, but Alyssa had too much respect for her aunt's shrewd business sense to doubt her. Aunt Thee always said: Read between the lines.
It was possible TriTech would want her to relocate, Alyssa conceded. Their offer was simply too good not to have a down side, and returning to the city where she'd been raised was a major downer.
She rounded the corner and hurried by the shuttered stalls of the Mercato Nouvo, where vendors sold leather goods, scarves, and souvenirs during the day. A group of Japanese tourists with garlands of cameras around their necks were clustered around the Porcellino Fountain. Rubbing the bronze nose of the wild boar's statue was supposed to bring good luck.
Alyssa was half tempted to give it a try, but long ago Lady Luck had turned her back on Alyssa. She'd learned to rely on herself.
The bustling cafés lining the piazza opposite the Savoy filled the soft night air with music and the aroma of meat being grilled Tuscan style. Pausing for just a moment outside Gilli's, she admired the artful boxes of chocolate. The window display featured egg-shaped containers covered with sequins to look like priceless Fabergé eggs. Inside each was a selection of handmade chocolates.
She admired creativity, prized it for its uniqueness in a mass market world. But even the most innovative design could be duplicated, Alyssa reminded herself as she turned and walked across the narrow street to the Savoy.
"Buono sera," the doorman greeted her.
She stepped through the double-wide glass doors into the ultramodern lobby. To her right was the Art Deco bar opening onto the piazza. She spotted the American businessman already seated at a small table near the windows.
Burt Anders had noticed Alyssa coming across the square. Although Florence's streets were filled with elegantly dressed, beautiful women, Alyssa Rossi stood out. Not only was she taller than most, but she was strikingly blond in a country known for its attractive brunettes.
Adding to Alyssa's appeal was an air of remoteness, Burt decided as she walked toward him. It seemed as if she was always preoccupied, her mind on more important things.
He rose, realizing how Clay Duvall could be so taken with Alyssa. But why had Duvall insisted his name be kept secret?
Smiling at her, Burt couldn't help thinking something about Alyssa bothered him and had from the first moment he'd met the designer. What was it? He wasn't sure, and he found that even more troubling.
They don't pay you the big bucks to ask questions, Burt reminded himself. He worked as a consultant, putting together small deals like this one for corporations whose executives were too busy with larger, more complicated acquisitions. It was easy money — most of the time — but this one had a slight hook with the secrecy angle. Don't look for trouble, he cautioned himself.
Burt greeted Alyssa as he pulled out her chair. He couldn't help smiling inwardly at the envious looks from the other men in the room. What was an old man with flyaway tufts of gray hair doing with such a beautiful woman? Trying to conclude his last deal, one that would let him retire to his place in Florida and devote himself to his only true love — golf.
"You look nice this evening," he said without going overboard and telling her she was a knockout.
Alyssa Rossi wasn't susceptible to flattery. If she had a weak point, he'd yet to discover it. She often seemed almost shy, yet at other times she was boldly assertive.
"This scarf is one of my designs," she told him, acting as if he'd been complimenting her clothing, not the woman in them. "I plan to add scarves and pashimas to my accessory collection."
"Pashimas?" He signaled the waiter to bring the bottle of Pinot Grigio he'd ordered earlier.
"A cross between a stole and a scarf," she informed him. "They're very in right now."
The waiter arrived with two wineglasses and a silver urn filled with crushed ice. With a deft twist of his hand, he uncorked the bottle, and poured a bit of the vintage Pinot Grigio Ascoli into Burt's glass. "Signore."
Burt swirled the white wine, then took a small sip. He nodded, indicating he approved. The obsequious waiter bowed before filling their glasses.
"Are we celebrating?" Alyssa asked, her tone measured, and he wondered if she was being sarcastic.
"I assumed having your aunt read the proposal was only a formality. You're the sole owner of Rossi Designs, aren't you?"
"Yes, but I always confer with my aunt. She gave me the start-up money for my firm."
"Did your aunt have any" — he didn't want to say problems — "concerns?"
"Not concerns ... questions. I want to know more about Jackson Williams, CEO of TriTech. Since this is a private company, I assume he's the one with the power."
Burt had never met the man, but Clay Duvall had given him enough information to make it sound as if he knew Williams personally. "Jake's in his early thirties, tall, athletically built. His education was a bit unusual. He never attended college. He —"
"If I sell to TriTech, will I be allowed to continue running my own company, or is Mr. Williams one of those hands-on executives who constantly meddles?"
Burt listened, striving to appear attentive as Alyssa outlined her concerns. He managed a smile, then said, "Be assured. Jake Williams wants Rossi Designs to expand and grow. By selling it to TriTech, you'll have the infusion of capital you need, but the day-to-day running of the company will continue to be your responsibility. TriTech executives won't bother you, believe me."
"I want it in writing."
Burt sipped his wine before saying, "There may be a slight problem. Jake's hiking in Patagonia right now. That's in a remote part of Argentina. No cell phones or faxes. Jake likes to get away from it all when he can. He's trekked in the Himalayas, run the —"
"I can wait until he comes home."
For the first time, Burt sensed the deal slipping through his fingers. He knew Williams had already returned from Patagonia. Clay Duvall wanted this deal completed before his partner realized what was happening.
"That won't be necessary," Burt said, his tone reassuring. "I'm certain someone in New Orleans is authorized to sign the necessary document."
The waiter topped off their wine. Burt raised his glass, set to seal the agreement with a toast. Mentally, he pictured himself out on the fairway, the stressful world of negotiating deals behind him forever.
"There's one other thing."
Burt lowered his glass and tried for a smile. "Yes?"
"Does TriTech expect me to relocate to New Orleans?"
"Good question," he responded with as much enthusiasm as possible. Clay had warned him to avoid this topic. "All the great Italian designers have bases in the United States. Gucci, Armani, Missoni. Versace put Miami on the map. In New Orleans you'll be global, but you'll have access to the technical and marketing expertise you'll need to ward off counterfeiters."
Her cool, measured look told Burt this was the deal breaker. He had to convince her or postpone a life of golf for another year.
"The minute you post your designs on RossiDesigns com, they knock off every piece, right? But with a base in the States and the resources of TriTech behind you, those designs will be in the stores nationwide just as they go onto your website. With the market saturated, it won't be lucrative enough for counterfeiters to copy your designs, will it?"
It took her a moment to concede, "I guess not."
Again he raised his glass. "We have a deal?"
She reluctantly clinked the rim of her glass against his. "Yes. Here's to a new start with Jackson Williams in New Orleans. Buona Fortuna."
"Yes. Good luck." Here's to Clay Duvall, Burt silently toasted.
She graced him with a half-smile. Suddenly, it hit him. The picture in Clay's office of his wife, Phoebe. That's what had been knocking around in the back of his mind.
How could you miss it? he asked under his breath. What was Clay Duvall up to?CHAPTER 2
Jake Williams attempted to concentrate on the reports stacked on the Louis XIV desk. There wasn't enough room on the wimpy desk to spread out, Jake decided, riffling through the papers as he searched for the report he'd seen earlier. Which one was it? He racked his brain, but nothing registered.
"Aw, hell. That's jet lag for you."
Unable to locate the troubling document, he glanced around the room, taking in the gilt furniture and drawn brocade drapes. Beams of light from the crystal chandelier played across the highly buffed parquet floors.
"It's a long way from the Redneck Riviera to the French Riviera," he said out loud.
He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes for a moment, blocking out the company's opulent town house in Monte Carlo. It was a stretch from Mobile, Alabama, and the sweeping, picturesque bay Southerners fondly called the Redneck Riviera. Jake had grown up in a trailer park across the street from Mobile's commercial fishing docks.
He lived for boats and the sea the way most young boys lived for sports. Before he was eight, Jake was earning money shucking oysters in a steamy shed behind the wharf where no one would see him and report the situation to Social Services. By the time he was a teenager, he was skippering sport fishing boats for the rich men from the North who spent a fortune on yachts and fancy tackle just to catch "the big one."
Excerpted from Closer Than She Thinks by Meryl Sawyer. Copyright © 2001 M. Sawyer-Unickel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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