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SASHA turned her head to look at her nine-year-old twin sons. They were playing on the beach like a pair of seal pups, wriggling and wrestling together, and jumping in and out of the waves that were washing gently onto the secluded Sardinian shoreline.
"Be careful, you two," she warned, adding to the older twin, "Sam, not so rough."
"We're playing bandits." He defended his boisterous tackling of his twin. Bandits had become their favourite game this summer, since Guiseppe, the brother of Maria who worked in the kitchen of the small boutique hotel that was part of the hotel chain owned by Sasha's late husband, had told them stories about the history of the island and its legendary bandits.
The boys had their father's night-dark hair, thick and silky, and olive-tinted skin. Only their eye colour was hers, she reflected ruefully, giving away their dual nationality—sea-coloured eyes that could change from blue to green depending on the light.
"Told you I'd get free." Nico laughed as he wriggled dexterously out of Sam's grip.
"Careful. Mind those rocks and that pool,'Sasha protested, as Sam brought Nico down onto the sand in a flying tackle that had them both laughing and rolling over together.
"Sam, look—a starfish," Nico called out, and within a heartbeat they were both crouching side by side, staring into a small rock pool.
"Mum, come and look," Nico called out. Obligingly she picked her way across to them, crouching down in between them, one arm around Sam, the other round Nico.
"Come on. And I'm the Bandit King, remember." Sam urged Nico to get up, already bored with the rock pool and its inhabitant.
Boys, Sasha thought ruefully. But her heart was filled with love and pride as she watched them dart away to play on a safer area of smooth sand. She turned to look back towards the hotel on its rocky outcrop, while still keeping her maternal antennae firmly on alert. This hotel was, in her opinion, the most beautiful of all the hotels her late husband had owned. As a wedding gift to her he had allowed her a free hand with its renovation and refurbishment. The money she had expended had been repaid over and over again by the praise of their returning guests for her innovative ideas and her determination to keep the hotel small and exclusive.
But with Carlo's death had come the shock of discovering that the other hotels in the group had not matched the financial success of this one. Unknown to her, Carlo had borrowed heavily to keep the business going, and he had used his hotels as collateral to secure his loans. Bad business decisions had been made, perhaps because of Carlo's failing health. He had been a kind man, a generous and caring man, but not the kind of man who had taken her into his confidence when it came to his business and financial affairs. To him she had always been someone to be protected and cherished, rather than an equal.
They had met in the Caribbean, with its laid-back lifestyle and sunny blue skies, where Carlo had been investigating the possibility of buying a new hotel to add to those he already owned. Now, in addition to having to cope with the pain of losing him, she had had to come to terms with the fact that she had gone overnight from being the pampered wife of a rich man to a virtually destitute widow. Less than a week after Carlo's death his accountant had had to tell her that Carlo owed frighteningly large sums of money, running into millions, to an unnamed private investor he had turned to for help. As security for this debt he had put up the deeds to the hotels. And, although she had begged her business advisers to find a way for her to be able to keep this one hotel, they had told her that the private investor had informed them that under no circumstances was he prepared to agree to her request.
She looked back at her sons. They would miss Sardinia, and the wonderful summers they had all enjoyed here, but they would miss Carlo even more. Although he had been an elderly father, unable to join in the games of two energetic young boys, he had adored them and they him. Now Carlo was gone, his last words to her a demand that she promise him she would always recognise the importance of the twins'Sardinian heritage.
"Remember," he had told her wearily, "whatever I have done I have done with love—for you and for them."
She owed Carlo so much; he had given her so much. He had taken the damaged needy girl she had been and through his love and support had healed that damage. The gifts he had given her were beyond price: self-respect, emotional self-sufficiency; the ability to give and receive love in a way that was healthy and free of the taint of destructive neediness. He had been so much more to her than merely her husband.
Determination burned steadfastly in her eyes, turning them as dark as the heart of an emerald. She had been poor before—and survived. But then she had not had two dependent sons to worry about. Only this morning she had received a discreet e-mail from the boys'school, reminding her that fees for the new term were now due. The last thing she wanted to do was cause more upheaval in their young lives by taking them away from the school they loved.
She looked down at her diamond rings. Expensive jewellery had never been something she'd craved. It had been Carlo who had insisted on buying it for her. She had already made up her mind that her jewellery must be sold. At least they had a roof over their heads for the space of the boys' summer holidays. It had hurt her pride to ask Carlo's lawyers to plead for them to be allowed to stay on here until their new school term began in September, and she had been grateful when they had told her that she'd been granted that wish. Her own childhood had been so lacking in love and security that from the very heartbeat of time when she had known she was pregnant she had made a mental vow that her child would never have to suffer as she had suffered. Which was why...
She turned her head to watch her sons. Yes, Carlo had healed so much within her, yet there had been one thing he couldn't heal. One stubborn, emotional wound for which she still had not found closure.
The worry of the last few months had stolen what little spare flesh she had had from her body, leaving her, in her own eyes, too thin. Her watch was loose on her wrist as she pushed the heavy weight of her sun-streaked tawny hair back off her face and kept it there with one slender hand.
She had been eighteen when she'd married Carlo, and nineteen when the boys had been born, an uneducated but street-smart girl who had been only too glad to accept Carlo's proposal of marriage despite the fact that he was so much older than her. Marriage to him had provided her with so much that she had never had, and not just in terms of financial security. Carlo had brought stability into her life, and she had flourished in the safe environment he had provided for her.
She had been determined to do everything she could to repay Carlo's kindness to her, and the look on his face the first time he had seen the twins, lying beside her in their cots in the exclusive private hospital in which she had given birth, had told her that she had given him a gift that was beyond price.
"Watch, Mum." Obediently she obeyed Sam's demand that she watch as he and Nico turned cartwheels. One day soon they would be telling her not to watch them so closely. As yet they hadn't realised just how carefully she did watch over them. Sometimes, with two such energetic and intelligent boys, it was hard not to be over-protective—the kind of mother who saw danger where they saw only adventure. Her own thoughts silenced the ever ready 'be careful', hovering on her lips. "Very good," she praised them instead.
"Look, we can do handstands too," Sam boasted. They were agile, as well as tall for their age, and strongly built.
"You have made good strong sons for me, Sasha," Carlo had often praised her. She smiled, remembering those words. Their marriage had bought her time and space in which to grow from the girl she had once been into the woman she was now. The sun glinted on the thin gold band of her wedding ring as she turned again to look at the hotel on the rocks above them.
She had travelled all over the world with her late husband, visiting his chain of small exclusive hotels, but this one here in Sardinia had always drawn her back. Originally a private home, owned by Carlo's cousin, Carlo had inherited the property on the cousin's death, and had vowed never to part with it.
Gabriel stood in the shadow cast by the rocks and looked down onto the beach. His mouth twisted with angry contempt and something else.
How did she feel now? he wondered, knowing that fate had reneged on the bargain she had struck with it, and that the security she had bought with her body was not, after all, going to be for life. How had she felt when she had learned that her widowhood was not going to be one of wealth and comfort?
Had she cursed the man she married, or herself? And what of her sons? Something dark and dangerous ripped his guts with razor-sharp claws. Just watching them had brought to the surface memories of his own childhood here on Sardinia. How could he ever forget the cruel, harsh upbringing he had endured? When he had been the age of these two boys he had been made to work for every crust he was thrown. Kicks and curses had taught him how to move swiftly and sure-footedly out of their range. But then he had been an unwanted child, a child disposed of by his rich maternal relatives, abandoned by his father, to be brought up by foster carers. As a boy he had, Gabriel acknowledged bitterly, spent more nights sleeping outside with the farm animals than he had inside with the foster family, who had learned their contempt of him from his mother's relatives.
Gabriel believed that such an upbringing either made or broke the human spirit, and when it made it, as it had his, it hardened it to pure steel. He had never and would never let anyone deflect him from his chosen path, or come between him and his single-minded determination to stand above those who had chosen to look down on him.
His maternal grandfather had been the head of one of the richest and most powerful of Sardinia's leading families. The Calbrini past was tightly interwoven with that of Sardinia. It was a family riven in blood feuds, treachery and revenge, and steeped in pride.
His mother had been his grandfather's only child. She had been eighteen when she'd run away from the marriage he had arranged for her, to marry instead a poor but handsome young farmer she had believed herself in love with.
Strong-willed and spoiled, it had taken her less than a year to realise that she had made a mistake, and that she loathed her husband almost as much as she did the poverty that had come with her marriage. But by then she had given birth to Gabriel. She had appealed to her father, begging him to forgive her and let her come home. He had agreed, but on condition that she divorced her husband and left the child with his father.
According to the stories Gabriel had been told as a child, his mother hadn't thought twice. Her father had paid over a goodly sum of money to Gabriel's father on the understanding that this was a once and for all payment and that it absolved the Calbrini family from any responsibility towards the child of the now defunct marriage.
With more money that he had ever had in the whole of his life in his pocket, Gabriel's father had left his three-month-old son and set off for Rome, promising the cousin he had left Gabriel with that he would send money for his son's upkeep. But once in Rome he'd met the woman who was to become his second wife. She had seen no reason why she should be burdened with a child who was not hers, nor why her husband's money should be wasted on it.
Gabriel's foster parents had appealed to his grandfather. They were poor and could not afford to feed a hungry child. Giorgio Calbrini had refused to help. The child was nothing to him. His daughter had also remarried—this time to the man of his choice—and he was hoping that within a very short space of time she would give him a grandson with the lineage his pride demanded.
Only she hadn't, and when Gabriel was ten years old his mother and her second husband had both been killed when the helicopter they were in crashed. Giorgio Calbrini had then had no alternative but to make the best of the only heir he had—Gabriel.
It had been an austere, loveless life for a young boy, Gabriel remembered, with a grandfather who'd had no love for him and had despised the blood he had inherited from his father. But at least under his grandfather's roof he had been properly fed. His grandfather had sent him to the best schools—and had made sure that he was taught everything he would need to know when the time came to take over from him and become the head of the house of Calbrini. Not that his grandfather had had high hopes of him being able to do so, as he had made plain to Gabriel more than once. "I have to do this because I have no choice, because you are the only grandson I have," he had told Gabriel, ceaselessly and bitterly.