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Raffaele Orsini prided himself on being a man who was always in control. There was no doubt that his ability to separate emotion from logic was one reason he'd come this far in life.
Rafe could look at a relatively nondescript investment bank or financial corporation and see not what it was but what it could be, given time and money and, of course, the expert guidance he and his brothers could provide. They had created Orsini Brothers only five years ago but they were already an incredible success in the high-stakes world of international finance.
They'd always been incredibly successful with beautiful women.
The brothers shared the dark good looks of their mother and the rapier-sharp intellect of their father, who'd both immigrated to the States from Sicily decades before. Unlike their old man, they'd put their talents into lawful pursuits, but there was a dangerous edge to them that worked to their advantage in bedrooms as well as boardrooms.
It had done so today, when Rafe had outbid a Saudi prince for the purchase of a venerable French bank the Orsinis had wanted for a very long time. He, Dante, Falco and Nicolo had celebrated with drinks a couple of hours ago.
A perfect day, on its way to becoming a perfect evening…
Rafe stepped from the lobby of his mistress's apartment building—his former mistress's apartment building, he thought coldly—declined the doorman's offer of a taxi and dragged in a deep breath of cool autumn air. He needed to calm down. Maybe the walk from Sutton Place to his Fifth Avenue penthouse would do it.
What was it with women? How could they say something at the start of an affair even when they damnedwell didn't mean it?
"I am completely dedicated to my career," Ingrid had said in that sexy Germanic purr of hers after the first time they'd gone to bed. "You need to know that, Rafe. I am not at all interested in settling down, so if you are—"
Him? Settle down? He still remembered how he'd laughed and rolled her beneath him. The perfect woman, he'd thought as he began making love to her again. Gorgeous. Sexy. Independent…
His cell phone rang. He yanked it from his pocket, glared at the number on the screen and dumped the thing back into his jacket. It was Dante. The last thing he wanted was to talk to one of his brothers. The image in his head was still too fresh. Ingrid, opening the door. Ingrid, not wearing something slinky and sophisticated for their dinner reservations at Per Se but wearing, instead… What? An apron? Not the serviceable kind his mother wore but a thing that was all ruffles and lace and ribbons.
Ingrid, smelling not of Chanel but of roast chicken.
"Surprise," she'd trilled. "I'm making dinner tonight!"
She was? But she had no domestic skills. She'd told him that. Laughed about it.
Not tonight. Tonight she'd walked her fingers up his chest and whispered, "I'll bet you didn't know I could cook, liebling"
Except for the liebling, it was a line he'd heard before. It made his blood run cold.
The scene that played out next had been all too predictable, especially her shrill accusations that it was time to take their relationship to a new level and his blurting out, "What relationship?"
Rafe could still hear the sound of whatever it was she'd thrown at him hitting the door as he exited.
His cell phone rang again. And again, until finally he cursed, hauled the damned thing from his pocket and flipped it open.
"What?" he barked.
"And good evening to you, too, bro."
Rafe scowled. A woman walking toward him veered away.
"I am not in the mood for games, Dante. You got that?"
"Got it," his brother said cheerfully. Silence. Then Dante cleared his throat. "Problems with the Valkyrie?"
"Not a one."
"Good. Because I'd hate to lay this on you if you and she are—"
"Lay what on me?"
His brother's sigh came through the phone. "Command performance, eight o'clock tomorrow morning. The old man wants to see us."
"I hope you told him what he can do with that request."
"Hey, I'm just the messenger. Besides, Mama called, not him."
"Hell. Is he supposed to be at death's door again? Did you tell her he's too mean to die?"
"No," Dante said reasonably. "Would you?"
It was Rafe's turn to sigh. They all adored their mother and sisters even though they seemed able to forgive Cesare Orsini anything. His sons could not. They'd figured out what their father was years ago.
"Damn it," Rafe said, "he's sixty-five, not ninety-five. He's got years ahead of him."
"Look, I don't want to listen to more endless speeches about where his banks are and what the combination is to his safe and the names of his lawyers and his accountants any more than you do. But could I tell that to Mama?"
Rafe's scowl deepened. "All right. Eight o'clock. I'll meet you guys there."
"It's just you and me, man. Nick's leaving for London tonight, remember? Falco heads for Athens in the morning."
There was a brief silence. Then Dante said, "So, it's over with you and the Valkyrie?"
Rafe thought of saying everything from "No" to "What makes you think that?" Instead, he shrugged.
"She said it was time to reassess our relationship."
Dante offered a succinct, one-word comment. It made Rafe laugh; he could almost feel his black mood slipping away.
"I've got a cure for Relationship Reassessment," Dante said.
"I've got a date with that redhead in half an hour. Want me to call, see if she's got a friend?"
"I'm off women for a while."
"Yeah, yeah, I've heard that before. Well, if you're certain…"
"On the other hand, what is it they say about getting right back on a horse after you fall off?"
Dante laughed. "I'll call you back in ten."
Wrong. He called back in five. The redhead had a friend. And she'd be delighted to meet Rafe Orsini.
Well, hell, Rafe thought smugly as he hailed a cab, what woman wouldn't?
He overslept the next morning, showered quickly, skipped shaving, pulled on a black cotton sweater, faded jeans and sneakers and got to his parents' place before Dante.
Cesare and Sofia lived in a town house in Greenwich Village. Half a century ago, when Cesare had bought the house, the area had actually been part of Little Italy. Times had changed. The narrow streets had turned upscale and chic.
Cesare had changed, too. He'd gone from being a low-ranking mobster to being first a capo—the head of the syndicate—and then the boss. A don, though in Sicilian vernacular, the old Italian title of respect had a meaning all its own. Cesare owned a private sanitation company and half a dozen other legitimate businesses, but his true profession was one he would never confirm to his wife, his sons, his daughters.
Rafe went up the steps of the town house and rang the bell. He had a key but never used it. This place had not been his home for many years; he had not even thought of it as home long before he'd left it.
The house was enormous, especially by Manhattan standards. Cesare had used the increasingly large amounts of money brought in by his various enterprises to buy the houses on either side and convert the three buildings into one. Sofia presided over it all with no domestic help. A proper Sicilian housewife, she had always cooked and cleaned for her family. Rafe suspected it helped her cling to the fiction that her husband was just an everyday businessman.
Sofia greeted him as she always did, with a kiss on each cheek and a hug, as if she had not seen him in months instead of a couple of weeks. The she stepped back and gave him a critical look.
"You have not shaved this morning."
To his chagrin, Rafe felt himself blush. "Sorry, Mama. I wanted to be sure I got here on time."
"Sit," she commanded, as she led him into the vast kitchen. "Have breakfast."
The oak table was covered with bowls and platters. Telling her he'd already had the half grapefruit and black coffee that was his usual morning meal would have invited a lecture on nutrition, Orsini-style, so Rafe took a little of this, a little of that and put them on a plate. Dante sauntered in a couple of minutes later. Sofia kissed him, told him he needed a haircut and pointed him at the table.
"Mangia," she commanded, and Dante, who took orders from no one, sheepishly complied.
The brothers were on their second espresso when Cesare's capo, a man who had served him for years, appeared.
"Your father will see you now."
The brothers put down their forks, patted their lips with their napkins and stood. Felipe shook his head.
"No, not together. One at a time. Raffaele, you are first."
Rafe and Dante looked at each other. "It's the prerogative of popes and kings," Rafe said with a tight smile, his words soft enough so they wouldn't reach the ears of Sofia, who was stirring a pot of sauce at the stove.
Dante grinned. "Have fun."
"Yeah. I'm sure it'll be a blast."
Cesare was in his study, a dark room made even darker by its overabundance of heavy furnishings, walls crowded with melancholy paintings of madonnas and saints and framed photographs of unknown relatives from the old country. Wine-colored drapes hung at the French doors and windows that overlooked the garden.
Cesare himself was seated behind his mahogany desk.
"Shut the door and wait outside," he told Felipe, and motioned Rafe to a chair. "Raffaele."
"You are well?"
"I am fine," Rafe said coolly. "And you?"
Cesare seesawed his hand from side to side. "Cosi cosa. I am all right."
Rafe raised his eyebrows. "Well, that's a surprise." He slapped his hands on his thighs and rose to his feet. "In that case, since you're not at death's door—"
Rafe's dark blue eyes deepened in color until they were almost black.
"I am not Felipe. I am not your wife. I am not anyone who takes orders from you, Father. I have not done so for many years."
"No. Not since the day you graduated from high school and told me you were going to a fancy university on a scholarship, and told me what I could do with your tuition money," Cesare said blandly. "Did you think I had forgotten?"
"You have your dates wrong," Rafe said, even more coldly. "I haven't taken orders from you since I discovered how you earned your money."
"So self-righteous," Cesare mocked. "You think you know everything, my son, but I promise you, any man can step into the darkness of passion."
"I don't know what in hell you're talking about and, frankly, I don't care. Goodbye, Father. I'll send Dante in."
"Raffaele. Sit down. This will not take long."
A muscle knotted in Rafe's jaw. Hell, why not? he thought. Whatever his father wanted to tell him this time might be amusing. He sat, stretched out his long legs, crossed them at the ankles and folded his arms over his chest.
Cesare hesitated. It was remarkable to see; Rafe couldn't recall ever seeing his father hesitant before.
"It is true," his old man finally said. "I am not dying."
"What I wished to discuss with you that last time, I did not. I, ah, I was not prepared to do so, though I thought I was."
"A mystery," Rafe said, his tone making it clear that nothing his father could say would be of interest.
Cesare ignored the sarcasm. "As I said, I am not dying." Another beat of hesitation. "But I will, someday. No one ever knows the exact moment but it is possible, as you know, that a man in my, ah, my profession can sometimes meet an unanticipated end."
Another first. Cesare had never made even token acknowledgment of his ties before.
"Is this your not-so-subtle way of telling me something's coming? That Mama, Anna and Isabella might be in danger?"
Cesare laughed. "You have seen one too many movies, Raffaele. No. Nothing is, as you put it, 'coming.' Even if it were, the code of our people forbids harming family members."
"They are your people," Rafe said sharply, "not 'ours.' And I am not impressed by honor among jackals."
"When my time comes, your mother, your sisters, you and your brothers will all be well taken care of. I am a wealthy man."
"I don't want any of your money. Neither do my brothers. And we are more than capable of taking good care of Mama and our sisters."
"Fine. Give the money away. It will be yours to do with as you wish."
Rafe nodded. "Great." He started to rise from his chair again. "I take it this conversation is—"
"Sit down," Cesare said, and then added the one word Rafe had never heard from him. "Please."
The head of the New York families sat forward. "I am not ashamed of the way I've lived," he said softly. "But I have done some things that perhaps I should not have done. Do you believe in God, Raffaele? Never mind answering. For myself, I am not certain. But only a foolish man would ignore the possibility that the actions of his life may one day affect the disposition of his soul."
Rafe's lips twisted in a cool smile. "Too late to worry about that."
"There are some things I did in my youth—" Cesare cleared his throat. "They were wrong. They were not done for the good of la famiglia but for me. They were selfish things and they have stained me."
"And this has what to do with me?"
Cesare's eyes met his son's. "I am asking you to help me put one of them right."
Rafe almost laughed. Of all the bizarre requests…
"I stole something of great value from a man who once helped me when no one else would," Cesare said gruffly. "I want to make amends."
"Send him a check," Rafe said with deliberate cruelty. What did all this have to do with him? His father's soul was his father's business.
"It is not enough."
"Make it a big check. Or, hell, make him an offer he can't refuse." Rafe's lips thinned. "That's you, isn't it? The man who can buy or intimidate his way into anything?"
"Raffaele. As a man, as your father, I am pleading for your help."
The plea was astounding. Rafe despised his father for who he was, what he was… but, unbidden, other memories rushed in. Cesare, pushing him on a swing at a playground. Cesare, soothing him when the clown hired for his fourth birthday party had scared him half to death.
His father's eyes burned with guilt. What would it take to hand-deliver a check and offer a long-overdue apology? Like it or not, this man had given life to him, his brothers and his sisters. He had, in his own manner, loved them and taken care of them. In some twisted way, he had even helped make them what they were. If he'd developed a conscience, even at this late date, wasn't that a good thing?
Rafe took a deep breath. "Yeah. Okay." He spoke briskly because he knew how easy it would be to change his mind. "What do you want me to do?"