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The Sicilian Surrender
By Sandra Marton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe sun was a blurred golden orb in a lowering sky as the sirocco blew in from the sea, howling through the ruins of the castello like the voices of the rebellious gladiators who had once defended this bit of Sicily against the power and might of ancient Rome.
Stefano Lucchesi thought of those men as he mounted the last stone steps and stood on the top of the cliff. To the west, Mount Etna slumbered in the humid air. Below, the stormy waters of the Mediterranean pounded the rocky shore.
How many times had a sentry stood in this same place, watching for the enemy? Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Normans had all spilled their blood here in the name of dominion. Pirates had hunted offshore, lying in wait for unwary ships like packs of hungry wolves.
Invader after invader had conquered this land of his ancestors, until, at last, it shook free of its shackles and created enemies of its own, an aristocracy that grew fat on the sweat of those who tilled this rocky soil.
Stefano turned his back to the sea, dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans and surveyed his kingdom. Time had not treated it kindly. All that remained of the castello were tumbled stone walls and a handful of pillars.
Perhaps that was as it should be. There was a certain ironic justice in the way time had evened the balance sheet. What his great grandfather three times removed had built here, what his grandfather had ultimately lost in a feud so bitter it had ended in bloodshed, had long-ago crumbled to dust.
Even the land had been sold. Stefano had ordered his attorney to buy it back, piece by piece, from gnarled old men in baggy black suits who reminded him of his grandfather. Stefano had named a price that was more than fair, but the attorney's representatives had no success.
All the old men seemed eager to sell land that was basically dry and barren until they heard the buyer's name.
"Lucchesi?" they said.
One even spat on the ground by way of punctuation.
Stefano was amazed that the name should still evoke violent emotion after more than seventy years. He'd said so to his lawyer, who grinned, shook his head and said that Stefano needed to rent the Godfather movies and watch them from start to finish.
"It's the Mafia thing," Jack said. "How can you have Sicilian blood running through your veins and not understand? Those old guys knew your grandpa. They hated him. Why should you expect a welcome from them?"
Stefano knew little about the Mafia. He'd grown up in America, where his grandfather had immigrated decades before his birth. His father died when he was a baby and his mother, a New Orleans homecoming queen, dragged him from city to city in a frenzied search for excitement. Stefano was twelve when she died.
His paternal grandparents, who he hardly knew, took him in.
Tough, street smart, hiding his fear behind a mask of arrogance, he couldn't have been easy for them to handle. His grandmother fed him and clothed him and otherwise washed her hands of him. His grandfather tolerated him, disciplined him and finally loved him with all his heart.
Perhaps his grandfather's advanced years, coupled with Stefano having come to know him so late in the old man's life, explained why he didn't have what Jack called "the Mafia thing" in his blood. His grandfather never told him tales of bloodshed and revenge. He told him, instead, of La Sicilia, of Castello Lucchesi, of the cliffs and the volcano and the sea.
Those were the things that beat in Stefano's blood, the things he cherished without ever having seen them.
It was only on his deathbed that the old man motioned him close, whispered of honor and pride and famiglia, of how he'd had to abandon everything and come to America to save what he could: Stefano's father and, by extension, Stefano.
"I will get it all back," Stefano had vowed.
It took time. Years to work his way through college, though by his senior year, he was impatient. During summer internships, he'd learned to hate the falseness of the corporate life that had been his goal, to despise the "old boy" network that was already working to deny him entry, the handshake that often accompanied the knife in the back.
His college roommate felt the same way. TJ was into computers. In those days, billionaires were made overnight in Internet start-up companies. TJ was going to be one of those billionaires. He had a great idea, he had the skill, the vision ...
All he needed was the money.
One winter day, his hard-earned next semester's tuition in hand, Stefano climbed into his ancient VW, headed toward Yale - and kept on going north, to a casino where he bought into a game of high-stakes poker. It was the first unplanned thing he'd ever done since the day he'd promised his grandfather to win back the Lucchesi honor, but he didn't let himself think about that.
He told himself he deserved a day off. He was a good poker player; he played for fun in school. In fact, he'd won his old VW at a poker table at a middle of the night game in his college dorm, when another guy thought he'd been bluffing with a flush showing on the table.
That day at the casino, Stefano won more than a VW.
He won thousands of dollars.
The casino gave him a free room. He staggered to it, showered, slept, ate and returned to the table. Three days later, he drove back to school, dumped a small fortune on his surprised roommate's bed and watched TJ stare at the bills in disbelief.
"Whadja do, man, rob a bank?"
"There's your start-up investment," Stefano said. "I want fifty-one percent control."
A muscle jerked in Stefano's jaw. Fast-forward a dozen years.
The start-up had made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. Now, even though his money was invested in aerospace companies, in Texas oil, in luxury condos in Manhattan, he'd never forgotten the pledge he'd made his grandfather.
Two years ago, he'd set out to fulfill it, but it had taken the conversation with his attorney to remind him that there were places and people where ancient vendettas still made the blood hot with rage.
The hot sirocco wind beat at Stefano's back, whipping his dark hair around his lean face. He pushed the strands back and again tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
"Double our initial offer," he'd instructed his attorney.
"That's far too much money. The land isn't worth -"
"No, but their pride is. Make the offer, and make it clear that I have my pride to consider, too. Tell them I'm making them an offer they can't refuse."
Jack had met the statement with a long silence. At last, he'd cleared his throat.
"You watched those movies, huh?"
Stefano had laughed. "Just make the offer and get back to me."
Now it was done. All this - the land, the cliffs, what remained of the castello and the view that stretched on forever - was his. So was the house he'd built, just beyond the ruins. He'd had the architect blend it into the rugged scenery and use stones from the original castle. The result was a handsome home, high-ceilinged, with walls of glass that looked over the volcano and the sea.
Stefano smiled. His grandfather, he was certain, would have been pleased.
Tonight, just after moonrise, he'd come out here again with a bottle of moscato and a glass. He'd pour the wine, lift the glass to the sea and toast the spirit of all those who'd come and gone before him.
And he would try to keep this place invisible to the rest of the world.
If the tabloids got word, they'd have a field day with what he'd done. It would put a sexy spin on the gossip that already swirled around him. He was building an empire, they said. He was a man of mystery. He was uno lupo solo. A lone wolf.
Excerpted from The Sicilian Surrender by Sandra Marton Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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