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Rio D'Aquila was known for many things.
He was wealthy beyond most people's measure, feared by those who had reason to fear him and as ruggedly good-looking as any man could hope to be.
Not that Rio gave a damn about his looks.
Who he was or, rather, who he had become, was what mattered.
He had been born to poverty, not in Brazil, despite his name, but on the meanest possible streets of Naples, Italy.
At seventeen, he'd stowed away on a rusting Brazilian freighter. The crew had dubbed him "Rio" because that was the ship's destination; they'd tagged on the "Aquila" because he'd responded with the fierceness of an eagle to their taunting.
The name had suited him much more than Matteo Rossi, which was what the sisters at the orphanage where he'd been raised had called him. "Rossi" was pretty much the Italian equivalent of "Smith." "Matteo," they'd said with gentle piety, meant a gift from God.
Rio had always known he was hardly that, so he took the name Rio D'Aquila and made it his own.
He was thirty-two now, and the boy he'd been was a distant memory.
Rio inhabited a world in which money and power were the lingua franca, and often as not handed down as an absolute right from father to son.
Rio's father, or maybe his mother, had given him nothing but midnight-black hair, dark blue eyes, a handsome if rugged face and a leanly muscled, six-foot-three-inch body.
Everything else he ownedthe homes, the cars, the planes, the corporate giant known as Eagle Enterpriseshe had acquired for himself.
There was nothing wrong with that. Starting life without any baggage, getting to the top on your own, was all the sweeter. If there was one drawback, it was that his kind of success attracted attention.
At first, he'd enjoyed it. Picking up the Times in the morning, seeing his name or his photo in the financial section had made him feel, well, successful.
Inevitably, he'd not only wearied of it, he'd realized how meaningless it was.
The simple truth was that a man who ranked in the top ten on the Forbes list made news just by existing. And when that man was a bachelor inevitably described as "eligible," meaning he had not yet been snared by some calculating female who wanted his name, his status and his money
When that happened, a man lost all privacy.
Rio valued his privacy as much as he despised being a topic of conversation.
Not that Rio cared much what people said, whether it was that he was brilliant and tough. Or brilliant and heartless. He was who he was, and all that mattered was his adherence to his own code of ethics.
He believed in honesty, determination, intensity of focus, logicand emotional control. Emotional control was everything.
Still, on this hot August afternoon, cicadas droning in the fields behind him, the hiss of the surf beating against the shore, he was ready to admit that logic and control were fast slipping from his grasp.
He was, to put it bluntly, angry as hell.
In Manhattan, when a business deal drove him to the point of rage, he headed for his gym and the ring in its center for a couple of rounds with a sparring partner, but he wasn't in New York. He was as far east of the city as a man could get without putting his feet in the Atlantic.
He was in the town of Southampton, on Long Island's exclusive South Shore. He was here in search of that increasingly elusive thing called privacy and, goddamnit, he was not going to let some fool named Izzy Orsini spoil the day for him.
For the past hour, Rio had taken his temper out on a shovel.
If any of his business associates could have seen him now, they'd have been stunned. Rio D'Aquila, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and work boots? Rio D'Aquila, standing in a trench and shoveling dirt?
But Rio had dug ditches before, not that anyone in his world knew it. And though he sure as hell hadn't expected to be doing any digging today, it was better than standing around and getting more ticked off by the minute.
Especially when, until a couple of hours ago, he'd had a damned good day.
He'd flown in early, piloting his own plane to the small airport at Easthampton where he'd picked up the black Chevy Silverado his property manager had left for him. Then he'd driven the short distance to Southampton.
The town was small, picturesque and quiet early on a Friday morning. Rio had parked, gone into a small cafe where he'd had breakfast with the guy who was putting in the infinity pool at the house he'd recently had built. The pool would extend over the dunes from the second floor terrace, and they'd talked about its size and the view he'd have. The conversation had been pleasant, almost as pleasant as being able to sit in a restaurant without being the unwilling center of attention.
That was part of the reason he'd decided to build a weekend home here, on six outrageously expensive acres of land that overlooked the ocean.
For the most partand there were always exceptions to the rule, of coursenobody bothered celebrities in these small eastern Long Island villages. And Rio, God help him, was a celebrity, according to the crazy media.
Here, he could be himself. Have a meal. Take a walk. It was like an unwritten code. Build here, become, for the most part, invisible.
For a man who sometimes had to travel with a phalanx of bodyguards or with a limo crawling along at the curb so he could duck into it, fast, and be whisked away, it was a minor miracle.
So Rio had enjoyed his bacon and eggs, strolled the streets for a while, even checked the hardware store as if he really were going to need to buy hammers and saws.
In fact, there'd been a time he'd owned such tools and used them to earn his daily bread. A little wistfully, he thought about maybe putting in some shelves in his new house, if he could find a place in it that needed them. He wasn't foolish enough to believe that working with your hands gave you special moral status but there was something to be said about leading a simpler life.
At midmorning, he met with the security specialist who'd installed an ultrasophisticated system in and around the house. They sat at a table on the flagstone patio of a little ice cream shop, the sun blocked by a big blue umbrella.
Rio tried to remember the last time he'd had a strawberry ice cream sundae and couldn't.
He felt what? Lazy. Content. He almost had to force himself to pay attention to the conversation.
There was a malfunction of the security system at the gate. The intercom wasn't working right. His caretaker had told him voices coming over the intercom were almost inde-cipherably drowned in static, and the gate's locking mechanism didn't always work.
The area was pleasant, there was nothing but a discreet plaque on the gate that said Eagle's Nest, but Rio wasn't a fool. A man like him needed security.
"Not to worry," the security guy assured him. "I'll come out Monday morning and deal with it, first thing."
At noon, Rio had driven to his house. The long driveway had not yet been finished and the tires bounced along over small stones and deep ruts but nothing could dim the pleasure he already took in the place.
The house was just as he'd wanted it. Light wood. Lots of glass. It would be his retreat from the dog-eat-dog world he inhabited 24/7.
The guy he'd hired as his contractor was waiting. They had some things to discuss, nothing major, and then, together, they'd interview three applicants for the job of landscaping the rear terrace and two decks.
No. Not three applicants. Four. Damned if he didn't keep forgetting that. Rio had some definite ideas about what he wanted. Whomever he hired would have to understand that he'd be an active participant in the plans he drew up, just as he'd been an active participant in the design of the house.
The caretaker was there, too, but just leaving. He told Rio he'd taken the liberty of filling the freezer and fridge with a few things.
"Breakfast stuff. You know, eggs, bacon, bread. And steaks, some local corn and tomatoes, even a couple of bottles of wine. Just in case you decide to spend the night."
Rio thanked him, though he had no plans to spend the night. As it was, he'd canceled a couple of meetings so he could get here but it had turned out to be the only chance for all three landscaping candidates to show up for interviews on the same day.
Four. Four candidates. How come he couldn't keep that in his head?
Probably because he wasn't hot on interviewing that fourth one, he thought, and gave a mental sigh. It was never a good idea to mix friendship and business, but when one of your pals asked you to at least talk to his cousin or uncle, or whatever in hell somebody named Izzy Orsini was to Dante Orsini, well, you bent the rules and did it.
After a few minutes, Rio took a picnic hamper from the Silverado's cab. His housekeeper in Manhattan had packed lunch at his request. It turned out to be an elegant one. Thinly sliced cold roast beef on French baguettes, a chunk of properly aged Vermont cheddar, a bottle of chilled prosecco, fresh strawberries and tiny butter pastries.
Plus, of course, linen napkins, stemware and china mugs.
Rio and the contractor grinned at each other. They were both wearing jeans, sitting on a pair of overturned buckets on the unfinished terrace, their meal arranged on a plank laid over a sawhorse.
Cold beer and a couple of ham and cheese on rye might have been more in keeping with things, but the lunch was good and they finished every mouthful.
The landscapers started arriving not long after that. They showed up one at a time, exactly as scheduled, Rio buzzing them in through the gate, which seemed to be working perfectly. They were local men, each efficient and businesslike and politely eager to win what would be a substantial contract.
All of them came equipped with glossy folders filled with computerized designs, suggested layouts, sketches, photos of prior projects and spreadsheets of mind-numbing detail.
Each listened carefully as Rio explained what they already knew. He wanted the perimeter of the terrace planted in as natural a manner as possible. The decks, as well. Greenery. Shrubs. Flowers, maybe. Or flowering shrubs. Rio was willing to admit what he knew about gardening could fit into a teaspoon with room left over, but he made it clear that he knew the overall effect he was going for.
"What I want," he told each applicant, "is to have the terrace seem to flow out of the fields behind the house. Does that make sense to you?"
Each man nodded earnestly; each roughed out some quick ideas on a sketchpad and though none of the sketches had been exactly what Rio intended, he'd known instantly that he could choose any of the three guys and, ultimately, be satisfied.
Three excellent landscapers.
But, of course, there was a fourth.
The contractor said he understood. A friend of a friend. He knew how that was. The friend of a friend was late but the two men settled in to wait.
After a while, Rio frowned.
"The guy should know better than to be late," he said. The contractor agreed. "Maybe he had a flat. Or something."
"Or something," Rio said.
Another ten minutes went by. Damnit, Rio thought, if only he hadn't gone to that party, he wouldn't be waiting to interview another landscaper at all.
The party had taken place a few weeks ago. Dante Orsini and his wife, Gabriella, had invited some people to their penthouse for a charity bash. Rio had gone with a date, a woman he'd been seeing for a couple of months.
She went off to the powder room.
The "little girls' room" she'd called it, and Dante had rolled his eyes at Rio, put a drink in his hand and led him out to the terrace, where it was quieter and less crowded.
"The little girls' room, huh?"
Rio had grinned. "All good things come to an end," he'd answered, and Dante had grinned, too, because he still remembered his bachelor days.
The friends had touched glasses, drunk some of their bourbon. Then, Dante had cleared his throat.
"So, we hear you're building a place in the Hamptons."
Rio had nodded. Word got around. Nothing new to that. New York was a big city but people like he and Dante moved in relatively small circles.
"Southampton," he'd said. "I visited a friend there one weekend last summer. Lucas Viera. You know him? Anyway, Viera has a house on the beach. Very private, very quiet. I liked what I saw, and now"
"And now," Gabriella Orsini had said, smiling as she joined the men and slipped her arm through her husband's, "you need a landscaper." Her smile broadened. "You do, don't you?"
Rio had shrugged. "Well, sure, but"
"We just happen to know a very good one."
To Rio's amazement, Dante had blushed.
"Izzy," Gabriella had said. She'd nodded toward the lush plantings along the borders of the terrace. "That's Izzy's work. Spectacular, don't you think?"
Rio had looked at the plantings. Not spectacular, but nice. Natural-looking, which could not have been easy to accomplish when the setting was a three-level penthouse in the sky.
"Uh," Dante had said, "see, Izzy is sort of trying to branch out, and"
"And," Gabriella had said sweetly, "we're not above a bit of nepotism. Are we, darling?"
The penny had finally dropped.
His friend, actually, his friend's wife, was hustling the work of one of her husband's relatives. A cousin, maybe an uncle, because there were only four Orsini brothers. Rio had met them all and not one was named Izzy.
Whatever, it didn't matter.