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'She'll be punished for what she's done. I'm going to make sure of that if it takes me the rest of my days!'
Salvatore Veretti took one last look of loathing at the photograph in his hand before pushing back his chair and going to stand by the window overlooking the Venetian lagoon, where the morning sun was clear, brightening the deep blue sky, adding glitter to the tiny waves that laughed and curled against the boats.
He stood here every morning, relishing the beauty of Venice, bracing himself for the day ahead. There was money to be made, critics to be silenced, enemies to be defeated by one method or another. But there was also this moment of peace and beauty, and the strength it gave him.
Beauty. The thought brought his attention back to the photograph. It showed a woman, not merely lovely but physically perfect: tall, slender, exquisitely proportioned. Any man would say so, for this was a body carefully tended to please men, to be judged by men.
Salvatore, well-equipped to judge the female form, having had so many of them naked in his bed, had studied this one carefully before letting his hatred explode from him. Now he looked at it again, estimating its many beauties, and nodding as though what he saw was no more than he had expected.
But there was no softening in his coldly handsome features. If anything they grew harsher as his eyes roved over the glorious shape that was barely covered by the minute black bikini; the lush breasts, the endless legs, the shapely rear.
Calculation, he thought. Every inch carefully sculpted, every move assessed beforehand, everything planned to inflame male desire and, by that means, bring her money. And now she had the moneyshe'd schemed to get. Or thought she had.
But I too can calculate, he mused. As you are about to discover. And when your weapons prove useless against me what will you do then?
There was a buzz from the desk and his secretary's voice said, 'Signor Raffano is here.'
'Send him in.'
Raffano was his financial adviser and also an old friend who'd known the family through many troubles. He'd been summoned to Salvatore's office in the Palazzo Veretti to discuss urgent business. By the time he entered Salvatore had moved away from the window.
'There's more news,' Salvatore said curtly, waving the other man to a chair.
Raffano was elderly with white hair and a gentle face. In his youth he'd been flamboyant, but the passing years had left him thinner and more serious.
'You mean in addition to your cousin's death?' he enquired cautiously.
'Antonio was my father's cousin, not mine,' Salvatore reminded him. 'He was always a bit of a gadfly, likely to do stupid things without considering the consequences.'
'He was known as a man who liked to enjoy himself,' Raffano mused. 'People said it proved him a true Venetian.'
'That's a slur on all Venetians. There aren't many with his reckless disregard for everything except his own pleasures. He'd spend it, drink it or sleep with it, and to hell with the rest of the world.'
'I will admit he should have taken more responsibility for the glass factory.'
'Instead he put the whole thing in his manager's hands, and vanished into the distance, to have fun,' Salvatore said grimly.
'Probably the shrewdest thing he could have done. Emilio is a brilliant manager, and I doubt if Antonio could ever have run the place so well himself. Let's remember the best of him. He was popular and he'll be greatly missed. Will his body be coming home for burial?' Raffano asked.
'No, I gather the funeral has already taken place in Miami, where he lived these last two years,' Salvatore said. 'It is his widow who will be coming to Venice.'
'His widow?' Raffano queried. 'But was he?'
'It seems that he was. Recently he bought the company of a flighty piece, no different from many others who had been in his life. I've no doubt he paid her well, but she wanted more. She wanted marriage so that in due course she could inherit his fortune.'
'You judge people very harshly, Salvatore. You always did.'
'And I'm right.'
'You know nothing about this woman.'
'I know this.' With a sharp movement Salvatore pushed the photograph over the table.
Raffano whistled as he took it. 'This is her? Are you sure? It's impossible to see her face.'
'No, it's a pity about that huge sun hat, but what does the face matter? Look at the body.'
A body to burn a man up with desire,' Raffano agreed. 'How did you get this?'
A mutual friend happened to bump into them a couple of years ago. I believe they'd just met, and my friend took a quick snap and sent it to me with a note saying this was Antonio's latest "little fancy".'
'You can just see that they must have been on the beach,' Raffano said.
'The perfect setting for her,' Salvatore said wryly. 'How else could she flaunt her expensive charms? Then she whisked him off to Miami, and when she had him to herself she persuaded him to marry her.'
'When did the marriage take place?'
'I don't know. No word of it reached here, which was probably her doing. She must have known that if his family knew about the wedding they'd have put a stop to it.'
'I wonder how,' Raffano pointed out. 'Antonio was in his sixties, not a teenager to obey your orders.'
'I'd have stopped it, I promise you. There are ways.'
'Legal ways? Civilised ways?' Raffano asked, giving him a curious look.
'Effective ways,' Salvatore said with a harsh grin. 'Trust me for that.'
'To be sure. I would always trust you to do what was unscrupulous.'
'How well you know me! However, the wedding took place. It must have been at the last minute, when she saw that he was near the end and moved fast to secure an inheritance.'
Are you sure there's been a marriage at all?'
'Yes, I've heard from her lawyers. The Signora Helena Verettias she now calls herselfis about to arrive and claim what she considers hers.'
The coldly sardonic edge in his voice startled even Raffano, who was used to it.
'Of course you feel bad about it,' he said. 'The factory should never have been left to Antonio in the first place. It was always understood that it was to go to your father'
'But my father was busy getting into debt at the time and my great-aunt thought she was doing the sensible thing, leaving it to Antonio,' Salvatore supplied. 'That was all right. He was family. But this woman isn't family, and I'll be damned if I stand by and see Veretti property fall into her grasping hands.'
'It'll be hard for you to challenge the will if she's his legal wife, however recent the marriage.'
A frightening smile came over Salvatore's face.
'Don't worry,' he said. 'As you said, I know how to be unscrupulous.'
'You make it sound almost like a virtue.'
'It can be.'
'Just the same, be a little careful, Salvatore. I know you've had to be ruthless ever since you were very young, to save your family from disaster. But sometimes I wonder if you're going a little too far for your own good.'
'My own good? How can being firm possibly harm me?'
'By turning you into a tyrant, a man to be feared but never loved, and consequently a man who will end his days alone. I wouldn't say this unless I was your friend.'
Salvatore's face softened. 'I know that,' he said. 'A better friend no man ever had. But don't worry. I'm well-protected. Nothing can touch me.'
'I know. That's what worries me most.'
Everything was done. The funeral was over, the paperwork was in order, and all that was left was to check out of the hotel and head for Miami Airport.
Before starting the journey Helena went to the cemetery, to lay a final offering of flowers on her husband's grave.
'I guess this is goodbye,' she said when she'd arranged them carefully. 'I'll come back and see you again, but I don't know exactly when. It depends what I find when I get to Venice.'
A step on the path behind her made her turn far enough to see a group of people walking past, slowing so that they could see her better. She gave a faint smile.
'It's happening again,' she whispered to Antonio. 'Do you remember how we used to laugh when they stared at me?'
Her beauty had always drawn eyes, first in her years as a model then, after her retirement, the attention had continued. Her long hair was a luscious honey-colour, and her figure had remained perfect; five feet ten inches, slender but rounded.
Her face was remarkable, with large eyes and full lips that commanded attention. Those generous lips were her chief beauty for they made her smile impossible to ignore, and when held softly together they seemed to be on the verge of a kiss.
That, at least, was what one of her admirers had said. Helena had thanked him graciously, then turned away to hide her chuckles. She could never quite take her own achievements seriously, which was part of her charm. Photographers wanting to convey 'voluptuous' had always asked for her, and she was soon known in the trade as 'Helen of Troy', which made her laugh even more.
Antonio had enjoyed every moment of it.
'They look at us and say, "What a lucky fellow to have won the heart of that beautiful woman!"' he'd said with relish. 'They think what a wonderful time we must have in bed, and they envy me.'
Then he'd sighed, for the wonderful time in bed had been an illusion. His heart had been too weak to risk physical exertion, and in their two years together they had never once made love. But he'd derived much innocent pleasure from the world's speculation.
'I'm going to miss you terribly,' she told him now. 'You were wonderful to me, always so kind, giving much and taking little. With most men it's the other way around. For the first time in my life I felt loved and protected, and now suddenly I'm alone again.'
Tears streamed down her face as she touched the marble headstone.
'Why did you have to die? We always knew it was going to happen but we thought, if we were careful, we could prolong your life. And we did. You had all those extra months and things were looking good, but then suddenly '
She could still see him as he'd been then, laughing, then stopping suddenly, his face becoming strained, laughter turning to choking as he was enveloped by his final heart attack. And it was all over.
'Goodbye,' she whispered. 'You'll always be in my heart.'
They had been so close in spirit that she felt he was still with her as the cab conveyed her to Miami Airport and she boarded the flight. In the long dark hours crossing the ocean he was there again, reminding her how their strange marriage had come about.
She'd abandoned modelling at the height of her career, tired of the life, meaning to become a businesswoman. She'd built up a healthy fortune, and only needed a way to invest it.
She'd thought herself knowledgeable, but soon discovered her mistake when a con man persuaded her to invest in a dud company. Before she'd actually signed any cheques Antonio had come to her rescue, warning her of a friend who'd been tricked in just such a way. That was how they'd met, when he saved her from disaster.
They'd become close friends. He had been in his sixties and already knew that his life could not be long. When he'd asked her to stay with him until the end she agreed without hesitation, feeling that he would ease her loneliness for whatever time they had together, as she would ease his. Their marriage ceremony had been as quiet as they could arrange and she'd tended him lovingly until the day he died in her arms.
He'd talked quite frankly about the time to come, and the provision he'd made for her, excessive provision in her opinion. She'd known he owned a glass factory on the Venetian island of Murano.
'When I'm no longer here Larezzo Glass will be yours,' he said. 'And you will go to Venice to claim it.'
'But what would I do with a glass factory?' she'd protested.
'Sell it. My relative, Salvatore, will make you a good offer.'
'How can you be so sure?'
'Because I know how badly he wants it. He wasn't pleased when it was left to me instead of him.'
'But didn't you tell me that he already has one of his own?'
'Yes, Perroni Glass is his, and they're the two best. When he owns Larezzo as well he'll dominate the whole industry. Nobody will be able to challenge him, which is just how he likes it. You can demand a high price. There's a bank loan to be paid off but there'll be enough money left after that to keep you safe. Don't refuse me, cara. Let me have the pleasure of knowing that I've looked after you, as you have looked after me.'
'But I don't need money,' she reminded him. 'I have plenty of my own, which you saved for me. You looked after me very effectively then.'
'Then let me look after you some more, to thank you for your care of me.'
'But we cared for each other,' she thought now. 'He showed me that all men aren't grasping and rapacious. Now he's gone and I can't see the way ahead.'
It was a long journey, first across the Atlantic to Paris, then a three-hour wait for the connecting flight to Venice. By the time she reached her destination she was nodding off. When she finally emerged from Customs she was met by an escort from the hotel. It was bliss to leave everything to him.
She had a vague awareness of the motor-boat trip across the lagoon and down the Grand Canal to the Illyria Hotel, where hands assisted her from the boat. Once in her room she nibbled at the meal that was sent up, before climbing into bed and sinking into a heavy, jet-lagged sleep.
As the hours passed her sleep became lighter and she found that Antonio was there again in her dreams, cheerful, jokey, despite his impending death, because it was his way to ignore the future as long as he could enjoy the present.
Because he flourished in hot weather they had gone to live in Miami, where they spent long, lazy days together, in contented mutual devotion. To please him she'd learned to speak Italian, and then also learned the Venetian dialect because he'd bet her she couldn't do it.
He'd tricked her about that. She'd thought it would be easy, imagining a dialect was little more than a change in pronunciation. Too late she'd discovered that Venetian was a whole different language.
Antonio had enjoyed the joke, laughing until he brought on a coughing fit and had to use his inhaler.
'Fooled you!' he gasped. 'Bet you can't do it.'