Read an Excerpt
'Do I have to go to kindergarten today?'
Taylor drew the dark-haired little boy close in a loving hug, felt his small arms curve round her neck in a gesture that tugged at her heart and fiercely vowed to protect him at any cost.
Just three and a half years old, he'd had his world recently shattered beyond belief with the loss of both his parents in a car crash.
Ben d'Alessandri had become part of her life from the moment her sister, Casey, had announced her pregnancy.
Together, they'd shared setting up a nursery, choosing motifs, soft toys and baby clothes indulgently sanctioned by Casey's husband, Leon.
It had been Taylor who'd gowned up and added her encouragement to that of Leon as they supported Casey during the birthing process and afterwards, witnessing Casey and Leon's shared joy in the miracle of their baby son.
Two sisters, tragically orphaned in their teens, they'd shared a close bond, championing each other in their chosen pursuits and celebrating the other's successes. Casey had graduated in law and Taylor, a talented writer, had had her first book accepted for publication a year before Ben's birth.
'Why can't I come with you and see Zio Dante?'
The mere mention of Leon's brother's name caused Taylor's stomach to do a slow backward flip before settling into a state of unease.
'You'll see your uncle soon,' she said gently, meeting his solemn gaze.
'Yes.' It was a given.
'I think so,' she allowed cautiously. 'Except we must remember he's had a long flight from Italy, and he's going straight to a business meeting.'
Ben nodded his head. 'With you.'
Oh, Lord, honesty to his level of understanding seemed the best way to go.
'Of course,' she teased. 'Aren't you just the most important person in the universe? A boy for whom your devoted aunt will slay dragons?'
Taylor placed her lips into the curve of his neck and blew a soft raspberry kiss, heard him giggle and brushed her lips to his cheek, loving the clean smell of soap, shampoo and freshly laundered clothes.
'The entire animal kingdom if I had to,' she assured solemnly and joined in his delighted laughter.
'Zio Dante, too?'
It was all too easy to picture Dante in hero mode. His tall, broad-shouldered frame exuded male perfection, but it was his strong-boned facial features which drew attention.
Eyes dark as sin and just as dangerous, they alternately promised or threatened much.
The first time she'd met him had been the night of Casey and Leon's engagement party when he had flown in from New York for the celebration.
All it had taken was a look, and the blood had fizzed in her veins, causing her emotions to go every which way as she fought against the instant electric attraction. Something which stole the breath from her throat and any coherent words from her mind.
He was a man who made her think of the forbidden. And how he could easily circumvent a woman's objection especially hers.
Except she'd consciously guarded herself against him, sensing that he knew she did so, for she'd been sure the teasing touch of his mouth to her own had been deliberate at the evening's end.
The light sweep of his tongue along her lower lip, the faint nibble at its sensitive centre and how the action caused her body to suffuse with languorous warmth.
Oh, heavens, get a grip.
She made a dashing slash with one hand and summoned a fierce expression as she assured, 'Zio Dante will slay them all with his mighty sword.'
Ben's eyes grew round. 'Does he have a real sword?'
'No, just a pretend one.'
Taylor rose to her feet with Ben in her arms. 'Now, young man. It's kindergarten and lots of fun with the other kids. OK?'
She collected her bag, keys, locked the small two-bedroom apartment and together they took the lift down to the underground car park, where her Lexus sedan stood in its parking bay.
It wasn't difficult to engage Ben's attention during the short drive and, although he appeared pensive as she checked him in with one of the carers, he brightened almost immediately as two of his friends raced over to greet him.
His smile and wave as she left tugged at her heartstrings, and she hated leaving him. Except it was imperative he maintain a routine after the tragic loss of his parents.
Poor little fellow. She'd guided him through the grief of losing his mummy and daddy, and made him feel as secure as humanly possible in the ensuing weeks as they had both attempted to come to terms with the tragedy.
His tears had flowed freely as she comforted him while her own were shed in the dark of night without comfort or solace of any kind.
Part of it was concern, Taylor admitted as she eased the Lexus into the flow of traffic heading into the city. When Casey and Leon had requested Taylor and Dante be Ben's legal guardians, should the worst ever happen, no one had ever thought that this time would come. Now Taylor wondered as to precisely how custody of Ben could be shared by two people who resided at opposite ends of the world.
She'd considered every scenario, agonised and lost sleep over each of them knowing there was a need for mutual agreement, yet unable to countenance the success of any one solution.
There was the sinking, sickening feeling that Dante would exert unfair pressure, given Ben was a d'Alessandri heir.
A fierce protectiveness strengthened her resolve. If Dante attempted to remove Ben from her care, he'd have to do so over her dead body!
Dante d'Alessandri stepped down onto the tarmac from his Gulfstream jet, thanked the flight attendant, cleared Customs, then exited the terminal and crossed to the black Mercedes parked a few metres away. He acknowledged the chauffeur and slid into the rear seat, resting his head on the soft, buttery leather.
Within minutes the Mercedes eased towards the exit leading from Sydney's major air terminal.
Gusty showers dashed rain against the windscreen as the vehicle traversed the main arterial road leading into the city.
Fitting, perhaps, given events of the past few weeks wherein he'd dealt with his brother and sister-in-law's accidental death, accompanied his widowed mother from Florence to Sydney for the funeral, then had personally ensured her safe return to Italy.
Two brothers, Dante reflected, a few years apart in age, close during their formative years, through university, adhering to their father's dictate they each take a lowly position in the d'Alessandri corporation and work their way up. Something at which they'd both succeeded. It was Dante who had been selected to remain at the Italian head office while Leon was dispatched to the Australian corporate branch in Sydney.
Opposite sides of the world had lessened individual contact, but they'd kept in frequent touch via phone and email.
Now Dante was back in Sydney to settle Leon's affairs and deal with the legalities involved in sharing custody of his brother's son, who thankfully had been safely ensconced in kindergarten on the day his parents had been killed.
A child he'd promised to care for and would, given he was legally bound to do so by the terms of Leon and Casey's wills.
Five years ago he'd stood as best man at the wedding of his younger brother to Casey Adamson, and upon Ben's birth a little over a year later he'd agreed to be named together with Casey's sister, Taylor, as Ben's legal guardian and godparent.
A protective measure, and one it had been hoped would never need to be put into effect, Dante ruminated with a pensive expression.
His eyes narrowed slightly as he recalled Taylor's image. Tall, slender, dark blonde hair. A young woman he'd met at Leon's engagement, partnered at Leon's wedding, again at Ben's christening, and shared mutual support with at Leon and Casey's funeral.
He recalled the unshed tears glistening in her eyes during the service the moment she faltered, then regained control during the reading of the eulogy. And afterwards as the family stood at the grave site, the cool autumn day and the wind whipping at her hair.
It had been Taylor, immediately following the fateful accident, who'd taken Ben into her care and shielded the child during the difficult weeks that followed.
Something for which he was immensely grateful, given his need to support his mother, tie up urgent business matters and delegate in order to facilitate his return to Sydney.
Dante checked his watch as the chauffeur drew the Mercedes to a halt at the kerb adjacent a tall city building.
It took only minutes to gain access to Leon's legal firm on a high floor, give his name and have the lawyer's PA lead him into a large executive office where Leon's legal representative welcomed him with a customary greeting before indicating the young woman who'd risen from her chair.
'Taylor,' Dante acknowledged as he closed the space between them, took her offered hand, then leant in and brushed his lips to her cheek, sensed the faint hitch in her breath and wondered at it.
Her height was accentuated by stiletto-heeled boots, black fitted trousers and a mid-thigh-length knitted woollen jacket in air-force blue, hitched low over her hips by a wide leather belt.
His brief return to Florence had wrought a regular email exchange regarding their nephew and confirmation of today's legal consultation.
As sisters, he reflected, Taylor and Casey had shared an affectionate bond, but different personalities.
Casey, so bright and bubbly, with laughing eyes and a wicked sense of humour. Her personal world had been filled with her husband and son. Whereas Taylor adopted a reserved, almost wary mask he found intriguing.
Yet he'd seen it slip for a brief moment when Casey had said her vows to Leon during their wedding ceremony. Later at Ben's christening, when Taylor had pledged to care for her nephew as his godmother and recently at Casey and Leon's funeral service.
It was a vulnerability she'd endeavoured to hide one which fascinated him on a fundamental level.
A woman it would give a man pleasure to tame if only to peel back the various layers of her reserve and discover what lay in her heart. Possibly her soul.
A challenge, but not one he'd been inclined to pursue during his infrequent stopovers.
Her voice held polite warmth, and he had the uncanny feeling she'd read his mind something he seriously doubted.
As CEO and president of the d'Alessandri corporation, he'd gained a serious reputation for cool-headed, cutthroat negotiation an essential requisite for wheeling and dealing in multinational commercial real estate on an annual multi-billion-dollar scale, with a personal fortune placing him among Europe's wealthy echelon.
Such a level of success hadn't been achieved without an ability to guard whatever strategy he chose to employ.
The lawyer indicated one of three comfortable chairs as he resumed his position behind the large desk. 'Please take a seat.' He pulled a file forward and opened it. 'The custody issue regarding Leon and Casey's son needs to be addressed. I assume you've each given it some thought?'
'Ben is comfortable living with me,' Taylor offered quietly. 'I work from home, so there are no issues with child care. I know Casey would have been happy for me to take primary responsibility.'
'I propose Ben should make his home with me in Italy' Dante paused fractionally and offered Taylor a considering look 'where he can be educated and groomed to eventually take his place in the corporation my late father founded. Ben is a d'Alessandri heir, the first in his generation. I have no doubt Leon would want his son to follow in his family's footsteps.'
Taylor's stomach plummeted at the unvoiced implication, and her eyes darkened with dismay. 'That can't be considered an option.'
Was that her voice? It sounded slightly strangled, even to her own ears. 'Ben is still struggling to comprehend the loss of his parents. He needs familiar surroundings and a regular routine. Not,' she added with increasing concern, 'be faced with adjusting to a strange country, people he doesn't know and a language he doesn't understand. It was never Casey's intention Ben live anywhere other than Sydney.'
'Nor, I imagine,' Dante drawled, 'was it Leon and Casey's desire to leave this earth at such a young age.' His eyes speared her own. 'But fate has chosen otherwise.'
She subjected him to an encompassing appraisal, noting his broad-boned facial features, startling dark eyes, the generous mouth the wide shoulders beneath superb tailoring, his tall, lithe frame whose height surpassed her own by several inches.
He looked precisely the man he'd become powerful, ruthless. Lethal. Not someone with whom to tangle.
Yet she'd seen him in a lighter mood, caught his smile, witnessed his warmth with Casey the affectionate camaraderie he'd shared with Leon. His gentleness with Ben.
There had been a time when she'd felt at ease in his company and wondered if something more might develop between them, had it not been for an assault by an intruder a year after Ben's birth that had left her both physically and emotionally scarred something which resulted in her avoiding a relationship with any man, especially a man as vital as Dante.
'You travel extensively,' Taylor pursued. 'How can you tuck him into bed each night and read him a bedtime story,' she protested, 'or be there to listen to his dreams and fears, hug him when he's sad and share his laughter?' She was on a roll, passionate in her concern and despairing of finding a solution to the adequate care of her dearly loved nephew.
'An alternative is for Ben to reside several months with you,' Dante offered, 'followed by equal time with me.'
The green flecks in her hazel eyes became more evident, and reminded Dante of the lush green foliage protecting the succulent grapes ripening in his Tuscan vineyard.
'How will uprooting him every few months provide him with any stability?' Taylor queried with agonised disbelief. 'He's just a little boy.'
'Who will receive the devoted adoration of his grandmother, and the care of a highly qualified nanny,' Dante informed with calm patience, and saw the pulse at the base of her throat quicken in agitation. 'I'm prepared to offer you open visitation rights, together with an all-expenses-paid trip to Florence,' he continued, 'including accommodation while Ben is in my care, to ensure your satisfaction he is happily ensconced in his new environment.'
Dante's voice held a subtle silkiness which she appeared to ignore, and he wondered if she knew the full extent of his power.
He regarded her carefully. 'Consideration for Ben's education must be addressed.' He paused fractionally, then offered, 'There is the option of a reputable boarding school.'
'No,' Taylor refuted swiftly.
There was a tense silence, one the lawyer attempted to breach with a placating spread of his hands, which Dante chose to ignore as Taylor fixed him with an appealing look.
'Is it of no consequence that I've had constant contact with Ben since he was born, and love him as much as if he were my own?'
Dante leant back in his chair and steepled his fingers. 'If this is so, I take it you're prepared to do anything to ensure his comfort, his happiness?'