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ANGELO RICCARDI climbed out of his limousine, a heavy-duty
vehicle armoured with reinforced panels and bulletproof glass, built to withstand a rocket attack. the heat outside was relentless. His sunglasses screening his hard dark gaze from the bright Venezuelan sunlight, he ignored the uneasy chatter of the English intermediary sent to greet him at the airport. While he understood the man's tension he was also irritated by it.
Angelo had not experienced fear since childhood and the shame of it had been beaten out of him. He had known loathing, rage and bitterness, but fear no longer had the power to touch him. His relentless rise to power and influence had featured in hundreds of magazines and newspaper features, but his birth and parentage had always been shrouded in a haze of uncertainty. When he was eighteen he had been told the truth about his ancestry. Any idealistic notions he'd had had died that same day when his chosen career had become a complete impossibility. With every successive year that had passed since then he had grown tougher, colder and more ruthless. He had used his brilliant intellect and razor-sharp instincts to build a huge business empire. That he had not had to break the law to become a billionaire was a harsh source of pride to him. "there's a colossal security presence here," his companion, Harding, muttered uneasily.
It was true, Angelo acknowledged. Armed guards were everywhere: on the rooftops of the ranch buildings, in every manicured clump of trees or bushes, their state of alert palpable. "it should make you feel safe," Angelo quipped.
"I won't feel safe until I'm back home again," Harding confided, mopping his round, perspiring face.
"Perhaps this was not the job for you."
He dealt Angelo a look of dismay. "Believe me, I meant no offence. I'm delighted to be of service."
Angelo said nothing. He was surprised that such a man had been chosen to act as middleman in a secret meeting. But then, how many outwardly respectable men accepted the kind of undercover favours that forced them into uncomfortable repayments? He strode into the cool air-conditioned interior of the opulent ranch house where a lantern-jawed older man awaited him. Harding was dismissed like a lackey of no consequence, while Angelo was looked over and greeted with a level of respectful curiosity that bordered on awe.
"it is a very great pleasure to meet you, Mr Riccardi," the older man declared in italian. "I'm Salvatore Lenzi. Don Carmelo is eager to see you."
"How is he?"
The other man grimaced. "His condition is stable at present but it's unlikely that he has more than a couple of months left."
Lean, handsome features taut, Angelo nodded. He had thought long and hard before he had agreed to visit and the old man's declining health had provided the spur. the infamous Carmelo Zanetti, head of one of the most notorious crime families in the world, was a stranger to him. Yet Angelo had never been able to forget that the same blood that ran in Carmelo Zanetti's veins ran in his own.
The elderly man lay propped up in a hospital-style bed surrounded by medical equipment. His face was lined with ill health. Breathing stentorously, he feasted his clouded dark gaze on Angelo and sighed. "I can't tell you that you look like your mother because you don't. Fiorella was tiny "
Almost imperceptibly the inflexible cast of Angelo's features softened, for his mother had shown him the only tenderness he had ever known. "SÃ¬"
"But you have the look of my father and your own. Your parents were the Romeo and Juliet of their generation," Don Carmelo recited with caustic humour. "A Sorello and a Zanetti, not a match made in heaven as far as either family was concerned and the bride and groom were at each other's throats within weeks of the wedding."
"Is that why my mother ended up scrubbing floors for a living?" Angelo enquired smooth as glass.
The old man was unmoved by the reminder. "She ended up doing that because she deserted her husband and disowned her family. Who would credit that she was my favourite? it was once my pleasure to spoil her and indulge her every wish."
"So, my mamma was a real Mafia princess?"Angelo sliced in with sardonic bite, unimpressed by the misty fairy-tale aspect of that assurance.
"Don't mock what you don't know about." Carmelo Zanetti sent him an impatient look. "Your mamma had the whole world at her feet. And what did she do? She turned her back on all that education and fine breeding and married your father. Compared to us, the Sorellos were cafoniuncouth people. Gino Sorello was a handsome hothead always looking for a fight. She couldn't handle him or his extra-marital activities."
"How did you deal with the situation?" Angelo was impatient to have the facts that had so far evaded his every attempt to discover them. "In this family we don't interfere between a man and his wife. When Gino was jailed for the second time, your mother walked out on her marriage. She ran away from her home and her responsibilities as though she was a little kid."
"Maybe she felt that she had good cause." Dark eyes crackling with grim amusement rested onAngelo. "And maybe you're in for a surprise or two, because I think you put your precious mamma on a pedestal when she died."
Anger at that insinuation made Angelo turn pale below his bronzed complexion. Only the awareness that Carmelo would revel in getting under his skin kept him silent.
The older man slumped heavily back against the pillows. "Fiorella was my daughter and dear to my heart, but she shamed and disappointed me when she walked out on her husband."
"She was twenty-two years old and Sorello was serving a life sentence. Why shouldn't she have sought a fresh start for herself and her child?"
"Loyalty is not negotiable in my world. When Fiorella vanished, people got nervous about how much she might know about certain activities. Her treachery was a stain on Gino's honour as well and it made her many enemies." Carmelo Zanetti shook his head wearily. "But she was destroyed by her own ignorance and folly."
Angelo's attention was keenly focused on the older man. "Obviously you didn't lose track of my mother and you know what happened to her after she arrived in England."
"You won't like what I have to tell you." "I'll cope," Angelo said drily.
Carmelo pressed the bell by the bed. "you'll take a seat and have a glass of wine while we talk. This one time you will behave like my grandson."
Angelo wanted to deny the relationship but he knew he could not. A certain amount of civility was the price he had to pay for the information he had long sought to make sense of his background. Squaring his broad shoulders, he sat down in a lithe, controlled movement. A manservant brought in a silver tray bearing a single glass filled with ruby liquid and a plate of tiny almond pastries. With a glint of something hidden in his sharp old eyes, Carmelo Zanetti watched the younger man lift the glass and slowly sip.
The old man laughed. "Dio graziayou're no coward!"
"Why should you want to harm me?" "How does it feel to have rejected your every living relative?" A sardonic smile of acknowledgement curved Angelo's handsome sculpted mouth. "it kept me out of prisonit may even have kept me alive. the family tree is distressingly full of early deaths and unlikely accidents."
After having taken a moment to absorb that acid response, Don Carmelo succumbed to a choking bout of appreciative laughter. Alarmed by the aftermath in which the old man struggled for breath, Angelo got up to summon assistance only to be irritably waved back to his seat.
"Please tell me about my mother," Angelo urged.
His companion gave him a mocking look. "I want you to know that when she left Sardinia, she had money. My late wife had left her amply provided for. Your mother's misfortune was that she had very poor taste in men."
Carmelo Zanetti gave him a cynical glance. "I warned you that you wouldn't like it. Of course there was a man involved. An Englishman she met on the beach soon after your father went to prison. Why do you think she headed to London when she spoke not a word of English? Her boyfriend promised to marry her when she was free. She changed her name as soon as she arrived and began to plan her divorce." "How do you know all this?" "I have a couple of letters that the boyfriend wrote her. He had no idea who her connections were. Once she was settled he offered to take care of her money, but he took care of it so well that she never saw it again. He bled her dry and I understand he then told her he'd lost it all on the stock market."
Angelo was very still but his brilliant gaze glittered like black diamonds on ice. "Is there more?"
"He abandoned her when she was pregnant by him and that was when she discovered that he was already married."
In shock at that further revelation, Angelo gritted his teeth and was betrayed into comment. "I had no idea."
"She lost the baby and never recovered her health." "You knew all thisyet you chose not to help her?"Angelo recognised the cold, critical detachment that had ultimately decided his frail mother's fate.
"She could have asked for assistance at any time but she didn't. I will be frank. She had become an embarrassment to us and there were complications. Gino got out of prison on appeal. He wanted you, his son, back and he wanted revenge on his unfaithful wife. Your mother's whereabouts had to remain a secret if you were not to end up in the hands of a violent drunk. Silence kept both of you safe."
"it didn't stop us going hungry though," Angelo replied without any inflection.
"But she didn't," Angelo incised.
Don Carmelo revealed no regret. "I'm not a forgiving man. She let the family down and the final insult was her belief that she had to keep her son away from my influence. She got religion before she died and turned against us even more."
"If you never saw her again, how do you know that?" the old man grimaced. "She phoned me when her health was failing. She was worried about what would happen to you. But she still begged me to respect her wishes and not to claim you when she was gone."
Angelo could see that exhaustion was steadily claiming the older man and pushing their meeting to a close. "I appreciate your candour. I would like the name of the man who stole my mother's money."
"His name was Donald Hamilton." Don Carmelo lifted a large envelope and extended it. "the letters. Take them."
"What happened to him?" "Nothing." "Nothing?" Angelo queried. "My mother died when I was seven years old."
"And now here you are, proud not to be a Zanetti or a Sorello. If you are so unlike the stock from which you were bred, why do you want Hamilton's name?" the old man riposted. "What could you intend to do with it?"
Angelo surveyed him with dark expressionless eyes and shifted a shoulder in an almost infinitesimal shrug.
"Don't do anything foolish, Angelo." Angelo laughed out loud. "I can't believe you're saying that to me."
"Who better? I've spent the last decade in exile. I've been hunted across this planet by the forces of law and order and by my enemies. But my time is almost up," Carmelo Zanetti mused. "You are the closest relative I have left and I have watched over you all your life."
"Only not so that I noticed," Angelo countered, unimpressed by the claim.
"Perhaps we are cleverer than you think. You may also find out that, under the skin, you have more in common with us than you want to admit."
Angelo lifted his arrogant dark head high, strong denial of that suggestion in every inch of his proud bearing. "No. I really don't think so."