at the Villa Rosamunda on the Amalfi coast
of Italy, falling in love is not on her agendaparticularly not with a man whose dubious family
connections have made
Demetrio Bertoluzzi is tall, dark and gorgeous.
Why he works single-handedly to restore his old
family home remains as much a mystery as how
he funds the job. Natalie finds herself drawn to
him like a moth to the flame. But to surrender
her innocence to this man could be
her undoing .
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FROM his post on the roof, Demetrio had a clear view of the chauffeur-driven car as it eased its way to a stop under the portico of the villa next door. Sleek and powerful, the Mercedes reflected the woman who owned it.
Barbara Wade was a legend in the world of international business—a freak, according to some. Nearing sixty, she'd broken with tradition early, aspiring to become more than a diamond-draped accessory content to take a backseat to her successful husband—or, in Signora Wade's case, husbands. From what he'd gathered through Forbes Magazine, Fortune 500 and similar publications, she'd frightened off the first two, and left the third in his grave.
That morning, though, it was not Barbara Wade who stepped out of the car, but a woman barely out of girlhood. Leggy and elegantly thin, with porcelain skin and brown hair falling glossy and straight to her shoulders, she had American princess written all over her. The granddaughter, he surmised. He'd heard the next-door gardeners talking among themselves that she was expected.
As though sensing she was being watched, she paused midway between the car and the front door of the villa and, lifting her head, met his gaze head-on. He knew what any common laborer would have done, caught acting so brazenly in that affluent strip of Italian real estate between Positano and Amalfi: look away and pretend he was observing the view. But Demetrio Bertoluzzi prided himself on being uncommon, and continued to stare.
What he knew to be no more than a well-ingrained stubborn streak coupled with injured pride on his part, she interpreted as outright impudence. It showed in the affronted tilt of her head, the subtle stiffening of her spine. Sweatsoaked Italian workmen, stripped to the waist and swinging a mason's hammer in one hand, did not openly feast their eyes on the cream of feminine American society, not if they wanted to keep their jobs.
What she didn't know, of course, was that he answered to no one. His own boss, he was free to stare all day, if he pleased. Nor was that all.
Amused, he allowed himself a small smile. How much more insulted she'd be, when she learned the rest. He could hear it now:
That man next door, Grandmother—who is he?
Oh, a very unsavory character, darling girl! Not at all the kind of man you want to know!
He was willing to guarantee she'd known very few men at all. Certainly had never had a man's hands discover her lily touchable. Too untouched.
Almost directly overhead, the late June sun glared down from a cloudless sky. Below, the blue Tyrhennian Sea spread all the way to Sicily. Perched between the two, on the lip of the steep cliff, lay the Villa Delfina, named for his late grandmother. His villa, now.
Stooping, he picked up the bottle of water leaning in the shade of one of the chimneys, and held it to his lips without once taking his eyes off the girl. Defeated, she finally dropped her gaze from him to the villa's roof, and from there to its faded stucco walls and dusty windows.
He knew what she saw. Almost fourteen years the house had stood empty and neglected, and over nine since his grandfather, Ovidio Bertoluzzi, had died in prison. A fitting end to a man whom his underworld associates had both feared and detested, and whom decent society had scorned.
At first, Demetrio had wanted no part of anything Ovidio had touched—and he'd left his stamp ingrained in the very walls of the villa. Even in death, his cold, hard eyes and chilling voice filled every room. Only when he realized he was letting the old man control him from beyond the grave did Demetrio allow expedience to prevail over pride, and agree to accept part of his inheritance.
But not the house on the Amalfi coast. The memories were too painful, the wounds still too raw. It had taken years before he'd been able to face it again, and even now he might never have returned, if it hadn't been for his grandmother.
The villa and its gardens had been her refuge. She had loved it—and she'd loved Demetrio. She'd been the only person who had, and it was out of respect and love for her that he'd eventually come back to claim it as his own. It would have broken her heart to see the desecration inflicted by vandals; the damage caused by weather, rodents, time.
The American princess had turned away, no doubt horrified by what she'd found next door.Vandalism didn't occur in villas perched along theAmalfi coast—unless those houses happened once to have belonged to mobsters. Then, of course, they became fair game for anyone with mischief in mind, and the authorities were only too happy to look the other way. Whatever it took to rid the area of human vermin was okay by them.
His smile disappeared, swiped away by his forearm as he drew it across his mouth. "But I'm not vermin and I'm not going anywhere, princess," he said softly, "so better get used to it."
"I thought I heard the car! Darling, why on earth are you standing out here in this blistering heat when I have cool drinks waiting on the terrace?" Splendid in a bronze silk caftan that whispered expensively around her ankles, her grandmother swept down the steps and folded Natalie in a scented hug.
As well as exquisite designer clothes, and bold, one-of-akind jewelry, Barbara Wade favored Diva perfume, surely the only appropriate fragrance for a woman who claimed center stage, no matter who else might be present. Outspoken, aggressive and glamorous, she was a force to be reckoned with on any level. But if she had a head for business that left international tycoons eating her dust, she also had a heart whose limitless capacity for love had been Natalie's lodestar for longer than she could remember.
Flinging her arms around her grandmother, Natalie said, "You don't know how glad I am that I decided to spend the summer here! You never change, and I'm so grateful for that."
Her grandmother held her at arm's length and observed her closely. "I heard about Lewis, my darling. Are you very crushed?"
Natalie laughed. "No woman likes to be dumped, but he was never the great love of my life. Honestly, Grandmother, I was about to end it between us, myself. He just happened to beat me to it, is all."
"Your mother thought you'd marry him."
"My mother hoped I'd marry him and forget about a career with Wade International. There's a difference."
"Yes, I suppose there is." Her grandmother subjected her to another searching scrutiny. "Is that why you're looking a little out of sorts? Because you've had a run-in with my daughter?" "No." Natalie cast another glance at the roof of the building next door. He was still up there, lounging against the chimney stack, and staring insolently. A dangerous man on a dangerous mission.
An involuntary shiver chased over her. Where had that thought come from? And why was her skin puckering, and warning bells clanging in her mind?
Curious to discover what had caught her attention, her grandmother looked up also and clicked her tongue in annoyance. "The neighborhood's gone to the dogs, I'm afraid," she declared brusquely, ushering Natalie inside the villa and away from that disconcertingly bold gaze. "I'd hoped that place would be put back on the market and sold to someone respectable, but it appears not to be the case."
Despite herself, Natalie couldn't resist one last look over her shoulder. "You mean, that man owns the place?"
"Unfortunately he does, darling. But don't concern yourself. He's not welcome in this neighborhood, and he knows better than to impose himself on us."
But he'd already imposed himself on Natalie. Albeit from a distance, his brazen stare had seemed to penetrate her linen jacket and skirt, and see right through to the skin and bones they concealed. She'd felt nakedly, disturbingly exposed, and not just physically. Somehow, he'd probed clean through to her inner self and invaded the secret part of her—the hopes, the dreams that she shared with no one.
"Why do you say he's not respectable?" she asked, following her grandmother across the foyer's cool marble floor.
"He's a Bertoluzzi, hopefully the last of a bad lot. They came from Crotone originally, where they were known—and feared!—for their involvement in organized crime. Would you believe his father was killed by a rival gang leader, who himself turned up dead as a doornail in a meat locker a few days later? But what else can you expect from people whose entire lives revolve around mayhem and murder?"
Fans whirled lazily from the high ceiling. A sparkling crystal chandelier hung in the well formed by the curving staircase. Huge porcelain jardinieres imported from China overflowed with flowers picked fresh from the garden that morning.
Natalie knew there'd be a bouquet in her room, too, and on the bed, cotton sheets scented with lavender and ironed to a fare-thee-well. She'd find hand-milled French soap in her lotions.
The protocol for household staff remained the same, no matter which of her many luxury residences Barbara Wade happened to call home at the time. She could afford the very best, and never settled for less.
Yet here she was, practically rubbing shoulders with a neighbor whose connections were, to say the least, dubious.
Intrigued, Natalie said, "How long has the family lived here?" "Over twenty-five years. The present owner's grandfather bought the place."
"Even at that time, it must have cost a small fortune. How could he afford it?"
Her grandmother rolled her eyes in disgust. "Extortion of some kind, probably! One thing you can be sure of, he paid for it with dirty money."
"I'm surprised the Residents'Association approved the sale."
"They wouldn't have, if they'd known. But the entire transaction was conducted in such an abominably underhanded manner by a local property dealer who, sadly, is still up to his neck in shady deals in the area, that those of us already living here had no idea who the new owners were until it was a fait accompli. If we had, we'd have moved heaven and earth to block the sale. But times have changed since his grandfather's day, and no one is about to let young Mr. Bertoluzzi get away with anything the least bit suspect. He puts one foot on the wrong side of the law, and he'll wish he'd never shown his face here again."
On that note, her grandmother brushed her hands together and swept aside the subject of the infamous family next door. "Romero will be serving the midday meal shortly, and I haven't had my prelunch vodka tonic yet. Will you join me, darling, or do you prefer a glass of wine?"
"I'll stick with wine, please," Natalie responded, keeping pace with her grandmother as she strode briskly through the house to the big, shaded patio overlooking the coast.
No matter how often she visited Villa Rosamunda, that first glance out at the sweeping spread of sea and sky always took Natalie's breath away. Because of the steep terrain, the garden fell away in a series of terraces, leaving an observer with an unobstructed view extending from the town of Amalfi to the east, as far as Positano to the west.
On the upper terrace, the largest by far, hibiscus bushes in shades of peach, salmon and scarlet filled huge urns set at intervals around a swimming pool the color of blue topaz. Beyond the stone balustrade separating the pool area from the landscaped lower terraces, bougainvillea grew in a riot of purple and orange, while a grove of lemon trees marked the boundary between the garden proper and the neighbors on one side. The other place, which he owned, lay on the other.
More fascinated than she ought to have been by the revelation that her grandmother's pristine Mediterranean paradise had been tainted by organized crime, Natalie waited until their drinks had been served, then remarked casually, "You've owned this place a long time. How is it I've never heard you mention this Bertoluzzi family until now?" "Because, as you might recall from previous visits, their house has stood empty for a number of years. Ovidio Bertoluzzi, the patriarch, ended up in prison, and his wife died not long after that. She was a rather charming, gentle soul, and quite a beauty in her day. One has to wonder whatever prompted her to marry a man like that, when there must have been plenty of others of decent background who'd have been happy to have her."
"Maybe she loved him," Natalie said.
Her grandmother's laughter brimmed with affectionate scorn. "What an incurable romantic you are, my darling! Not the best quality for a woman destined to head Wade International some day, but endearing, nonetheless."
"I don't see why the two can't mix. You've fallen in love enough to marry three times, after all, but you never let it hold you back."
"Romance and business can go together, I suppose, given the right combination of personalities. Unfortunately, men strong enough to cope with a hugely successful wife aren't easily come by. Most are afraid they'll wind up stripped of their masculinity."
"I think that's what frightened off Lewis."
"Then you're well rid of him."
"I know," Natalie said, and wondered why the thought immediately swimming to the forefront of her mind was that it would take a lot more than success to scare away the man next door.
Her grandmother touched her hand fondly. "How are things at home otherwise, Natalie? Do you spend much time there?"
"Not as much as my father would like. He doesn't understand why, with what he calls "all this modern technology paraphernalia," I can't deal with the Boston office longdistance, and work out of the house." "That's because he's able to see no farther than the end of a golf club or his yacht. It's just as well he married into money."
"That's not what keeps him and Mother together. They love each other dearly." Barbara had never appreciated her son-in-law's mild and gentle nature, and she never would. Knowing it to be something on which she and her grandmother had long ago agreed to disagree, Natalie dropped the subject and returned to the vastly more interesting topic of Mr. Bertoluzzi. "So, I gather you were surprised when you found you had a next-door neighbor again?"
"'Appalled" more aptly describes my reaction! The place had stood abandoned for so long that I think everyone around here hoped it would just quietly crumble into dust, and that would be the end of it and the Bertoluzzis. Then, one morning out of the blue, the rusty old gates clanged open and there was the grandson, driving a truck crammed with tools and building supplies. We haven't known a truly peaceful day since. He's hammering or running power tools from dawn to dusk."
"Maybe he's fixing the place up in order to sell it."
Her grandmother downed the last of her vodka tonic and held out the glass to Romero for a refill. "One can only hope, darling! One can only hope!"
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