But duty is always on Falco's terms! When his estranged father asks him to protect a young model who is being stalked, he begrudgingly agrees only because of the vulnerability he can see in her eyes.
Elle Bissette won't be a victimshe can take care of herself! And surely big, dark, devilish Falco is dangerous. Because one kiss from a man like him will leave her breathless .
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There were those who said that Falco Orsini was too rich, too good-looking, too arrogant for his own good.
Falco would have agreed that he was rich, that he was probably arrogant, and if you judged his looks by the seemingly endless stream of beautiful women who moved in and out of his bed, well, he'd have had to admit that perhaps he had something going for him that women liked.
There were also those who called him heartless. He would not have agreed with that.
He was not heartless. He was honest. Why let a competitor buy an elite investment bank if he could scoop it up instead? Why let a competitor get the edge in a business deal if he could get it first? Why go on pretending interest in a woman when he no longer felt any?
It wasn't as if he was a man who ever made promises he had no intention of keeping.
Honest, not heartless. And in the prime of life.
Falco was, like his three brothers, tall. Six foot three. Hard of face, hard of body. Buff, women said. That was true but it had nothing to do with vanity. He was fit the way a man must be when he knows keeping himself that way could mean the difference between life and death.
Not that he lived that kind of existence anymore.
Not often, at any rate.
Not that he talked about.
At thirty-two, Falco had already led what many would consider an interesting life.
At eighteen, he'd grabbed his backpack and thumbed his way around the world. At nineteen, he'd joined the army. At twenty, he became a Special Forces warrior. Someplace along the way, he picked up a bunch of disparate university credits, a skill at high-stakes gambling and, eventually, a passion for high-stakes investing.
He lived by his own rules. He always had. The opinions of others didn't concern him. He believed in honor, duty and integrity. Men who'd served with him, men who dealt with him, didn't always like himhe was too removed, some saidbut they respected him almost as much as women coveted him.
Or hated him.
It didn't matter.
Family was everything.
He loved his brothers the same way they loved him, with a ferocity that made the four of them as formidable in everything as they were in business. He would have given his life for his sisters, who would happily have returned the favor. He adored his mother, who worshipped all her sons as perhaps only Italian mothers can.
Who gave a damn about him?
Falco, like his brothers, had written off Cesare Orsini years ago. As far as his wife and daughters were concerned, Cesare owned a carting company, a construction firm and some of New York City's priciest real estate.
His sons knew the truth.
Their father was the head of something he referred to only as La Famigilia.
He was, in other words, the same as the thugs who had originated in Sicily in the last half of the nineteenth century. Nothing could change that, not the Brioni suits, not the enormous mansion in what had once been Manhattan's Little Italy and was now Greenwich Village. But, for their mother's sake, there were times Falco and his brothers put that aside and pretended the Orsinis were just another big, happy Sicilian-American family.
Today, for instance. On this bright, late autumn afternoon, Dante had taken a wife.
Falco still had trouble getting his head around that.
First Rafe. Now Dante. Two brothers with wives. And, Dante, it turned out, wasn't just a husband, he was also a father.
Nicolo and Falco had spent the day smiling, kissing their new sisters-in-law and grinning at Dante and Rafe. They'd done their best not to feel like jerks cooing at their infant nephewnot that it was difficult because the kid was clearly the world's cutest, most intelligent baby. They'd danced with their sisters and shut their ears to Anna's and Isabella's not-so-subtle hints that they had friends who'd make them perfect wives.
By late afternoon, they were more than ready to slip away and toast their bachelorhood with a few well-earned cold beers at a place the four brothers owned. Not their investment firm. This place was called, simply enough, The Bar.
Cesare headed them off before they could get to the door. He wanted to talk to them, he said.
Not again, Falco had thought wearily. One look at Nick's face and he knew his brother was thinking the same thing. For months now, the Don had been giving his "after I'm dead" speech. The combination to his safe. The names of his attorney and his accountant. The location of important papers. Stuff none of the brothers cared about; none of them wanted a penny of their father's money.
Falco's initial instinct was to ignore Cesare and keep walking.
Instead, he and Nick looked at each other. Maybe the long day had put them in a mellow mood. Maybe it was the champagne. What the hell, Nick's expression said, and Falco replied with a sigh that clearly said, Yeah, why not.
Their father had insisted on talking to them separately. Felipe, Cesare's capo, jerked his head, indicating Falco should go first.
Falco gave a moment's thought to grabbing the capo by his skinny neck, hoisting him to his toes and telling him what a slimy bastard he was to have spent his life as the Don's guard dog, but the family celebration was still going strong in the conservatory at the rear of the house.
So he smiled instead, the kind of smile a man like the capo would surely understand, moved past him and entered Cesare's study. Felipe shut the door behind him .
And Falco found himself in an endurance contest.
His father, seated at his desk, the heavy drapes behind him drawn so that the big room with its oversized furniture seemed even more gloomy than usual, looked up, nodded, waved a manicured hand toward a chaira gesture Falco ignoredand went back to leafing through the contents of a manila folder.
According to the antique mahogany clock that hung on a wall, all but lost among photos of politicians, old-country ancestors and age-yellowed religious paintings, four minutes ticked away.
Falco stood perfectly still, feet slightly apart, arms folded, dark eyes locked on the clock. The minute hand ticked to yet another marker, the hour hand made its barely perceptible jump. Falco unfolded his arms, turned his back on his father and went to the door.
"Where are you going?"
Falco didn't bother turning around. "Ciao, Father. As always, it's been a pleasure."
The chair creaked. Falco knew the Don was pushing back from his desk.
"We have not yet had our talk."
"Our talk? You were the one who requested this meeting." Falco swung toward his father. "If you have something to say, say itbut I assure you, I recall your touching words the last time I saw you. Perhaps you don't remember my response so let me remind you of it. I don't give a damn about your safe, your documents, your business interests"
"Then you are a fool," the Don said mildly. "Those things are worth a fortune."
A cool smile lifted the corners of Falco's mouth. "So am I, in case you hadn't noticed." His smile vanished. "Even if I weren't, I wouldn't touch anything of yours. You should know that by now."
"Such drama, my son."
"Questa verità, Father. Such truth, you mean."
Cesare sighed. "All right. You've made your speech."
"And you've made yours. Goodbye, Father. I'll tell Nicolo to"
"What were you doing in Athens last month?"
Falco stood absolutely still. "What?"
"It's a simple question. You were in Athens. Why?"
The look Falco gave the older man would have made anyone else take a hurried step back.
"What in hell kind of question is that?"
Cesare shrugged. "A simple one. I asked you"
"I know what you asked." Falco's eyes narrowed. "Did you have me followed?"
"Nothing so devious." Cesare moved his chair forward and reached for an elaborately carved wooden box. "Pure Havanas," he said, opening the box to reveal a dozen fat cigars. "They cost the earth. Have one."
"Explain yourself," Falco said sharply, without a glance at the box. "How do you know where I was?"
Another shrug. "I have friends everywhere. Surely you know that by now."
"Then you also know that I was in Athens on business for Orsini Brothers Investments." Falco smiled again, even more coldly. "Perhaps you've heard of us, Father. A privately held company started without any help from you."
Cesare bit the tip off the cigar he'd chosen, turned his head and spat the piece into a wastebasket.
"Even in these bad economic times, we've made our investors wealthy. And we've done it honestly, a concept you couldn't possibly understand."
"You added a private bank to your stable when you were in Athens," Cesare said. "Nicely done."
"Your compliments mean nothing to me."
"But banking was not all you did there," the Don said softly. He looked up; his eyes met Falco's. "My sources tell me that during that same few days, a childa boy of twelve held for ransom by insurgents in the northern mountains of Turkey, was somehow miraculously returned to his fam"
Falco was around the desk in a heartbeat. His hand closed on his father's shirt; he yanked him roughly to his feet.
"What is this?" he snarled.
"Take your hands off me!"
"Not until I get answers. No one followed me. No one. I don't know where you got all this crap but"
"I was not foolish enough to think anyone could follow you and live to talk about it. Let go of my shirt and perhaps I'll give you an answer."
Falco could feel his heart racing. He knew damned well no one had followed him; he was far too good to let that happen. And, yes, though he would never admit it, there had been more to his trip to Greece than the acquisition of a bank. There were times his old skills came in handy but he kept that part of his life private.
Falco glared at his father. And silently cursed himself for being a fool.
He had not let Cesare get to him in years. Fifteen years, to be exact, on a night one of his father's henchmen had caught him sneaking back into the heavily guarded house at two in the morning.
The Don had been furious, not at where his seventeen-year-old-son might have been, not at how he'd defeated the alarm system, but at how he'd gotten by the silent men who kept watch from the shadows outside the front door and deep within the walled garden.
Falco had refused to explain. He'd done more than that. He'd smirked as only a badass teenage boy could.
Cesare had backhanded him, hard, across the face.
It was the first time his father had hit him, which was, when he'd had time to think about it, a surprise. Not the blow; the surprise was that it had not happened before. There'd always been a hint of violence in the air between father and son; it had grown stronger when Falco reached adolescence.
That night, it had finally erupted.
Falco had stood still under the first blow. The second rocked him back on his heels. The third bloodied his mouth, and when Cesare raised his hand again, Falco grabbed his wrist and twisted the Don's arm high behind his back. Cesare was strong, but at seventeen, Falco was already stronger.
He was also fueled by years of hatred.
"Touch me again," he'd said in a whisper, "and I swear, I'll kill you."
His father's expression had undergone a subtle change. Not fear. Not anger. Something else. Something swift and furtive that should not have been in the eyes of a powerful man who'd just lost a battle, physically as well as figuratively.
Falco's face was badly bruised the next day. His mother questioned it, as did his sisters. He said he'd fallen in the shower. The lie worked but Nicolo, Raffaele and Dante had not been so easy to fool.
"Must have been a pretty awkward tumble," Rafe had said, "to blacken your eye as well as give you a swollen lip."
Yeah, Falco had said calmly, it was.
He never told anyone the truth. Had the beating been too humiliating to talk about? Was it his shock at the intensity of the quicksilver flash of rage that had almost overcome him?
Eventually, he understood.
Power had changed hands that night. It had gone from Cesare to him and then back to Cesare. What he'd seen in his father's eyes had been the knowledge that despite Falco's vicious threat, he, Cesare, had actually won the battle because Falco had let emotion overtake him. He had lost control of his emotions and somehow, he had no idea how or why, that loss of control gave the other person power.
And now, here he was, fifteen long years later, losing control all over again.
Carefully, he unfisted his hand, let go of Cesare's starched white shirt. Cesare fell back into his chair, his jowly face red with anger.
"If you were not my son "
"I'm not your son in any way that matters. It takes more than sperm to make a man a father."
A muscle knotted in the Don's jaw. "Are you now a philosopher? Trust me, Falco, in many ways, you are more my son than your brothers."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that what you so self-righteously claim to hate in me is what is also inside you. The lure of absolute power. The need to control." Cesare's eyes narrowed. "The willingness to shed blood when you know it must be shed."
"Damn you, old man!" Falco leaned over the desk and brought his angry face within inches of the older man's. "I am nothing like you, do you hear? Nothing! If I were, God, if I were "
He shuddered, drew back, stood straight. What was he doing, letting his father draw him deeper into this quagmire?
"Is this what you wanted to talk about? To tell me you've come up with absolution for yourself by pretending your genes are my destiny? Well, it won't work. I am not you. And this so-called discussion is at an"
Cesare took something from the folder on his desk and pushed it toward Falco. It appeared to be a glossy page, an advertisement, torn from a magazine.
"Do you know this woman?"
Falco barely spared the picture a glance.
"I know a lot of women," he said coldly. "Surely your spies have told you that."
"Indulge me. Look at her."
What the hell did it matter? Falco picked up the photo. It was an ad for something expensive. Perfume, jewelry, clothingit was hard to tell.
The focus of the page, though, was clear enough.
It was the woman.