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The Italian's Demand
By Sara Wood
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe put down the phone and for a long time he just stared at his shaking hands, too stunned to react in any way at all. As the news began to sink in, a choking emotion rushed into the void that had been his heart.
His vision was blurred by tears of joy and he brushed them away impatiently, leaping to his feet as if propelled by rocket fuel.
Lio! he thought in amazement, racing for his study door. My son!
He called out, his voice cracking and husky. Then louder, till his staff came running in alarm. And then he set the house alight with orders. He requested a Mercedes to replace his unsuitable Maserati, bookings for flights and hotel accommodation and for a bag to be packed - pronto.
Eyes burning feverishly, Vittore hurried in long, rapid strides down the broad, sweeping steps of the palazzo, wrenched open the door of the car and dived in as though flames licked at his heels and the dogs of Hell were almost upon him. But he was leaving his hell behind at last.
The cream leather enfolded his lithe body. Impatiently discarding his cashmere jacket, he waited till he heard the soft 'clunk' of the boot being closed and then hastily revved up, remembering just in time a wave of gratitude to his puzzled staff.
At last. He was on his way. Expertly negotiating the tight curves of the small piazza, with the glorious Amalfi coast disappearing behind him, he eagerly headed up the hill for Naples, for London ...
For his son!
He sucked in a lungful of air, barely able to contain himself. Lio, sweet Lio, was probably alive. Alive!
Joyous energy soared into every part of him, lengthening every muscle of his body. His breathing was all over the place: short, sharp, shallow. Every nerve danced and jerked, tuned to maximum alertness.
How could he survive the delay between now and arriving in London? How could he ever contain himself without exploding: shouting, laughing, weeping with relief ...?
"Bambino mio," he whispered softly, and the words made a vice of love and pain tighten around his heart. "My child. My baby."
Because soon, God willing, he would see his beloved son again, the baby he had adored with a wild and uncontrollable passion that had come upon him like a thunderclap when he'd first set eyes on his newborn child; a passion so unexpected and total that it had shaken him to his very soul and left him desperately and fatally vulnerable to all the pain that had followed.
He flung a raking hand through his neatly-groomed hair, causing a hank of it to fall, Byron-like, onto his forehead. For once he didn't care if he looked a mess, only that the love of his heart was waiting in England.
He dragged in his breath sharply, realising he'd stopped breathing. No wonder. Finding Lio again was all he'd dreamed of, night after empty night, for over a year.
He'd filled the interminable months, weeks and hours with a ferocious schedule of work to blot out the agony that had carved harsh lines in his once equable face.
The tragedy had turned him into a recluse; a cold, grim machine instead of a living, breathing man who adored life, valued friends and relatives and cared for them deeply.
But he'd had nothing to give them. No love could emerge from behind the steel cage that had surrounded his wounded heart. Life had lost its joy, its meaning.
But now ...! Emotion suddenly overtook him again, a hard and hurting lump swelling in his throat. His son was now seventeen months old. And could soon be safely in his arms again. It would be the miracle he had prayed for in the privacy of his room, night after desperate night.
Shortly after the momentous phone call, he'd opened the nursery door which had been locked since that day fourteen months ago when his English wife Linda had abducted Lio and disappeared off the face of the earth.
Nothing had been touched. There in the middle of the cruelly peaceful room stood the beautifully carved crib in which generations of Mantezzini babies had slept and gurgled for the first few months of their lives. Above it hung the brightly coloured mobile of farm animals. In hand-made wicker baskets nestled the unnaturally neat stacks of toys his son had never seen.
And the thought of his son being there again, once more filling his heart and his life with happiness and laughter, had made him sway on his feet and clutch at the door for support, taking away his very breath and robbing him of the great physical and mental strength for which he was renowned.
Darkness clouded his eyes as he remembered the reason his son would be returning. His estranged wife had died two months ago, the loan company had said on the phone.
And he, apparently was liable for the loan on her London house because she had named him as the guarantor.
He shuddered, suddenly sobered by a thought. If she hadn't forged his signature, Lio would have been lost to him forever. An ironic twist of fate.
"Poor Linda,' he murmured, offering thoughts for her salvation.
Oh, he wasn't a saint to be so forgiving of his late wife. Initially he had vilified her for depriving him of the son he loved. Yet now he felt unbelievably sad that she had died so young. Thirty years old. A tragedy.
A fear struck him. The line of his perfectly smooth jaw hardened as his white teeth jammed tightly together in an attempt to control a sharp and searing cry of visceral dread that turned his loins to water.
Dio! He didn't know that Lio was in the London house. He might not be. Anything could have happened to his son on Linda's death, though she'd stolen enough money to live well, to employ staff. His mother's jewels had been worth a fortune alone, and Linda had taken her own as well, plus everything in their joint bank account.
Knowing her dislike of motherhood, he assumed she would have employed an au pair or a nanny. With any luck, Lio would still be in the house under suitable care.
Unless his son had been taken away by a lover of Linda's, or some distant relative of hers. Worse, he thought, his black brows lowering in anger, the unwanted Lio could have been placed in a children's home!
He banged the steering wheel in frustration and scowled as he negotiated a tight turn in the tortuous road that snaked around the spectacular cliff.
Santo cielo! He could hardly bear it. Wanted to take chances on the slow, murderous bends, though logic curbed such rashness. It would hardly help if he were killed or seriously injured. But he longed for some means of obliterating the terrible waiting and the scouring uncertainty that was ripping his hopes to shreds.
It would be too cruel if Lio was snatched from his grasp again. He didn't deserve that.
His black eyes blazed with an intense passion. Excitement and fear created a painful chaos in his stomach and knotted his muscles even more tightly till they brought a welcome discomfort to divert his tortured mind.
Nothing, and no one must stop him this time. All his wealth, all his power, were meaningless in the face of his love for Lio.
He shuddered at the frightening intensity of his feelings, knowing that decency and caution would be thrown to the winds in his quest. The way he was feeling now, he knew he'd stop at nothing; would breach any barrier and take any steps necessary - legal or otherwise - to reclaim his beloved son.
Excerpted from The Italian's Demand by Sara Wood Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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