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The wedding at the little church in lower Manhattan and then the reception at the Orsini mansion had made for a long day, and Nicolo Orsini was more than ready to leave.
A naked woman was waiting in his bed.
She'd been there when he left his Central Park West triplex at ten that morning.
"Must you go, Nicky?" she'd said, with a pout almost as sexy as the lush body barely covered by the down duvet.
Nick had checked his tie in the mirror, checked the whole bitthe custom-tailored tux, the white silk shirt, even his wing tips, spit-polished the way he'd learned to do it in the corps. Then he'd walked back to the bed, dropped a light kiss on her hair and said yeah, he did.
It wasn't every day a man's brother got married.
He hadn't told her that, of course, he'd simply said he had to go to a wedding. Even that had been enough to put a spark of interest in her baby blues, but if he'd said it was one of his brothers doing the deed
Talk about the Orsini brothers and weddings was not a thought he cared to leave bouncing around in any woman's head.
"I'll phone you," he'd said, and she'd pouted againhow come that pout was becoming less of a turn-on and more of an irritation?and said maybe she'd just wait right where she was until he returned.
Nick lifted his champagne flute to his lips as he thought back to the morning.
Damn, he hoped not.
He had nothing against finding beautiful women in his bed, but his interest in this one was definitely waning and the female histrionics that sometimes accompanied the end of an affair were the last thing he wanted to deal with after a day like this. Much as he loved his brothers, his sisters, his mother, his sisters-in-law and his little nephew, there was such a thing as too much togetherness.
Or maybe it was just him. Either way, it was time to get moving.
He looked out the glass-walled conservatory at the garden behind the Orsini mansion. The flowering shrubs his sister Isabella had planted a couple of years ago were still green despite the onset of autumn. Beyond the shrubs, stone walls rose high enough to block out the streets of his childhood, streets that were changing so fast he hardly recognized them anymore. The Little Italy that had been home to generations of immigrants was rapidly giving way to Greenwich Village.
Trendy shops, upscale restaurants, art galleries. Progress, Nick thought grimly and drank some more of the champagne. He hated to see it happen. He'd grown up on these streets. Not that his memories were all warm and fuzzy. When your old man was the don of a powerful crime family, you learned early that your life was different. By the time he was nine or ten, he'd known what Cesare Orsini was and hated him for it.
But the bond with his mother and sisters had always been strong. As for the bond with his brothers Nick's lips curved in a smile. That bond went beyond blood.
All day, his thoughts had dipped back to their shared childhoods. They'd fought like wolf cubs, teased each other unmercifully, stood together against kids who thought it might be fun to give the sons of a famiglia don a hard time. Barely out of their teens, they'd gone their separate ways only to come together again, their bond stronger than ever, to found the investment firm that had made them as wealthy and powerful as their father but without any of the ugliness of Cesare's life.
They were part of each other, Raffaele, Dante, Falco and him. Close in age, close in looks, in temperament, in everything that mattered.
Was that going to change? It had to. How could things remain the same when one after another, the Orsini brothers had taken wives?
Nick tossed back the rest of his champagne and headed for the bar that had been set up at one end of the conservatory. The bartender saw him coming, smiled politely as he popped the cork on another bottle of vintage Dom Perignon and poured the pale gold liquid into a Baccarat flute.
"Thanks," Nick said.
Unbelievable, he thought as he watched Rafe dancing with his wife, Chiara. His brothers, married. He still couldn't get his head around it. First Rafe, then Dante and now even Falco. I-Am-An-Island-Unto-Myself Falco
His brothers had fallen in love.
"So will you, someday," Rafe had said last night, as the four of them had toasted Falco's coming nuptials in The Bar, the Soho place they owned.
"Not me," he'd said, and they'd all laughed.
"Yeah, my man," Dante had said, "you, too."
"Trust me," Falco had said. "When you least expect it, you'll meet the right woman and next thing you know, she'll have your poor, pathetic heart right in the palm of her hand."
They'd all laughed, and Nick had let it go at that.
Why tell them that he'd already been there, done thatand no way in hell was he going to do it again.
Sure, it was possible his brothers would end up on the positive side of the grim statistics that said one in four marriages wouldn't last. Their wives seemed sweet and loving, but that was the thing about women, wasn't it?
They played games.
To put it bluntly, they lied like salesmen trying to sell ice to Eskimos.
Nick scowled, went back to the bar and put his untouched flute of champagne on its marble surface. "Scotch," he said. "A double." "I'm sorry, sir. I don't have Scotch." "Bourbon, then." "No bourbon, either."
Nick narrowed his dark eyes. "You're joking." "No, Mr. Orsini." The bartendera kid, maybe twenty-one, twenty-twoswallowed hard. "I'm really sorry, sir." "Saying you're sorry isn't"
A muscle ticked in Nick's jaw. Why give the kid a hard time? It wasn't his fault that the only liquid flowing today was stuff that cost two hundred, three hundred bucks a bottle. Cesare's idea, no doubt. His father's half-assed belief that serving a classy wine would erase the stink that clung to his name.
Forget that. Falco would have paid for the wedding himself, same as Dante and Rafe had done. That was the deal, the only way any of them had agreed to hold the receptions in what their mother insisted would always be their home. Isabella had done the flowers, Anna had made the catering and bar arrangements. If he wanted to bite somebody's head off, it would be hers.
That did it. The thought of taking on his fiery kid sister either one of them, actuallymade him laugh.
"Sorry," he told the kid. "I guess I only thought I was all champagned out."
The kid grinned as he filled a flute. "No problem, Mr. Orsini. Me, I'm all weddinged out. Did one yesterday afternoon, another last night and here I am again. Comes my turn, my lady and I are definitely gonna pass on this kind of stuff."
Nick raised his glass in a mock salute. It was the appropriate reaction but what he really wanted was to say was, Hell, man, why get married at all?
Still, he knew the answer.
A man made his mark in the world, he wanted to make it last. He wanted children to carry on his name. So, yeah, he'd marry some day.
But he wouldn't pick a wife by fooling himself into thinking it was love.
Outside, visible through the walls of glass, the sky was graying. Rain, the weatherman had said, and it looked as if he'd got it right for a change.
Nick opened the door and stepped onto the patio.
When he was ready to choose a wife, he would do it logically, select a woman who'd fit seamlessly into his life, who would make no demands beyond the basic ones: that he support her comfortably and treat her with respect. Respect was all he would ask from her in return.
Logic was everything, in making business decisions, in planning a marriage. He would never make an emotional decision when selecting a bank to take over, or a stock to ride out. Why would he do it in selecting a wife?
Relying on emotion was a mistake.
Once, only once and never again, he had come dangerously close to making that error.
At least he hadn't been fool enough to tell anybody. Not even his brothers. He hadn't planned it that way; he'd just kept what was happening to himself, probably because it had all seemed so special. As a result, there hadn't been any "Oh, man, we're so sorry this happened to you" bull. Not that his brothers wouldn't have meant it, but there were some things a man was better off keeping to himself.
Things like learning you'd been used.
It had happened four years ago. He'd met a woman on a business trip to Seattle. She was smart, she was funny, she was beautiful. She came from a family that was as close to royalty as you could get in America but she'd made it in business on her own as the CFO of the small private bank he'd gone to the Northwest to buy.
To consider buying.
And that had turned out to be the key to everything.
She'd been in his bed by the end of the first day. And he'd wanted to keep her there. Before he knew it, they'd set a pattern. He flew to Seattle one weekend, she flew to New York the next. She said she missed him terribly when they weren't together; he admitted he felt the same way.
He had been falling in love, and he knew it.
A month into their affair, he decided he had to tell her about his father. He'd never done that before. A woman either knew his old man was a crook or she didn't. Who gave a damn? But this was different. This washe'd avoided even thinking the word in the pasta relationship.
So, one night, lying in her bed, he told her.
"My father is Cesare Orsini." When she didn't react, he told her the rest. That Cesare was the head of a notorious famiglia. That he was a gangster.
"Oh," she purred, "I already knew that, Nicky." A sexy smile. "Actually, it's a turn-on." A muscle knotted in his jaw.
The revelation should have set off warning bells. But the part of his anatomy with which he'd been thinking didn't have the luxury of possessing bells, warning or otherwise.
A long holiday weekend was coming. He'd asked her to spend it with him. She said she couldn't. Her grandmother, who lived in Oregon, was ill. She'd always been Grandma's favorite; Saturday morning, she'd fly out to spend the weekend with her, just the two of them, alone. She smiled. And she'd tell Grandma about the wonderful man she'd met.
Nick said he understood. It was a sweet thing to do.
And then, Friday night, he thought, what if he went with her? He could meet Grandma. Tell her how important her granddaughter had become to him.
He decided to make it a surprise.
He took the Orsini jet to Seattle, rented a car, drove to his lady's town house, took the key she'd given him and slipped quietly inside.
What came next had been like a punch in the gut.
His lady was in bed with her boss, the bank's CEO, laughing as she assured him that Nicolo Orsini was absolutely, positively going to make an offer for the bank that far exceeded its worth.
"An Orsini and you, babe," the man had said. "It's a classic. The princess and the stable boy "
The delicate champagne flute shattered in Nick's hand.
Champagne spilled on the jacket of his tux; a tiny drop of crimson oozed from a small cut on his hand. Nick yanked a pristine white handkerchief from his pocket, dabbed at his tux, at his finger.
"Hey, man," an amused male voice said, "the champagne's not that bad."
It was Rafe, coming toward him with a bottle of Heineken in each hand. Nick groaned with pleasure and reached for one.
"You're a miracle worker," he said. "Where'd this come from?"
"Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies." Rafe frowned, jerked his head at Nick's hand. "You okay?" "Fine. See? The bleeding's stopped already." "What happened?"
Nick shrugged. "I didn't know my own strength," he said with a lazy smile. "No problem. I'll get something and sweep it up."
"Trust me, Nick. One of the catering staff is bound to come out of the woodwork before you can" A woman appeared, broom and dustpan in hand. "See? What did I tell you?"
Nick nodded his thanks, waited until the woman was gone, then touched his bottle to his brother's.
"To small miracles," he said, "like brothers with bottles of beer at just the right moment."
"I figured it would do away with that long face you were wearing."
"Me? A long face? I guess I wasah, I was thinking about that Swiss deal."
"Forget business," Dante said, as he joined them. He, too, had a bottle of beer in his hand. "It's a party, remember?" He grinned as he leaned closer. "Gaby says that little caterer's assistant has been eyeing you all afternoon."
"Well, of course she has," Nick said, because he knew it was expected.
His brothers laughed. They talked for a few minutes and then it was time to say goodbye to the bride and groom. Finally, he could get out of here.
He went through the whole routinekisses, hugs, promises to his mother that he'd come to dinner as soon as he could. His father wasn't around. Perfect, he thought as he made his way down the long hall to the front door. He never had anything to say to Cesare beyond a perfunctory "hello" or "goodbye," and if the old man got hold of him today, it might take more than that because
Hell. Think of the devil and he was sure to turn up. "Leaving so soon, mio figlio?" Cesare, dressed not in Brioni today but in an Armani tux, flashed a smile. "Yes," Nick said coldly.
Cesare chuckled. "So direct. A man after my own heart."
"You don't have a heart, Father."
"And you are quick. I like that, too."
"I'm sure I should be flattered but you'll forgive me if I'm not. Now, if you'll excuse me"
"Have you forgotten you were to meet with me the day of Dante's wedding?"
Forgotten? Hardly. Cesare had cornered Falco and him; Nick had cooled his heels while Falco and the old man were closeted in his study and after a few minutes Nick had thought, What am I doing, waiting here like an obedient servant?
Besides, he'd known what his father wanted to tell him. Safe combinations. Vault locations. The names of lawyers, of accountants, everything the don felt his sons had to know in case of his death, when truth was none of them would ever touch the spoils of what the media called the Orsini famiglia.
"Five minutes," Nick said brusquely. "Just so long as you know in advance, Father, that whatever speech you've prepared, I'm not interested."