Dark Angel. Lynne Graham
the Tuscan hills of his childhood, until he had settled several outstanding scores to his own satisfaction. Primarily, those scores centred on the Linwood family and their supporting players. As the only outsider and expendable, he had been set up as a fall guy. In return, he would bring down the chain of wine stores on which the Linwood fortunes had been built. In fact that process had kicked off over a year earlier. Of the Linwood circle, only Rochelle would escape unscathed. In recognition of Rochelle’s belated efforts to redress the wrong she had done, he was prepared to stamp her account more or less paid.
Last but far from being least, however, came Rochelle’s little stepsister, Kerry Linwood. At the thought of his former fiancée, a hard smile set Luciano’s firm lips and his aggressive jawline clenched with formidable purpose. She had brought out his protective instincts and he had convinced himself that to offer her anything other than marriage would be an insult. Yet when the Linwoods had chosen him as the sacrifice to throw to the wolves, Kerry must have been in on that selection process.
Of course she had known he had been framed! Why else had she broken off their engagement without any adequate explanation only the day before his arrest? What he had believed he felt for her had been a rare flight of romantic fancy that had cost him dear, he acknowledged with brooding bitterness. Not a mistake he would ever make again with a woman. Kerry had betrayed him with quite outstanding completeness.
Revenge? No, it was simply payback time. Drama was not required. Luciano was prepared to allow that the volatile Italian and Sicilian genes that mingled in his family tree might dispose him more towards the darker forms of vengeful retribution. But at the same time, Luciano was very much a sophisticate. To secure the natural justice that he desired, every step he had already taken and would take in the near future had been and would continue to be both businesslike and ethical. His maternal grandfather might have fled Sicily when it became too hot to hold him but Luciano was better educated and infinitely cleverer. Even so, perhaps blood would out, Luciano conceded thoughtfully. The primal pleasure with which he looked forward to watching his victims sweat and suffer was a sensation which his brutal Sicilian grandfather would have entirely understood and approved.
‘You shouldn’t be thinking of the Linwoods,’ the slim, svelte brunette seated beside him lamented in liquid Italian, her dark eyes as soft as only a precious few could ever have seen them, for, much like himself, she was not given to revealing her emotions. ‘This is a very special day…live it, Luciano!’
As Luciano surveyed Costanza, a slow, shimmering smile illuminated his grave, dark features. He grasped the expressive hand which she had lifted in a wholly Latin gesture to accentuate her frustration. ‘We will live it together…I promise you,’ he soothed in his rich, dark drawl.
‘Then let’s go home to Italy,’ Costanza urged. ‘Right now, before one more hour passes!’
‘I’m not ready yet,’ Luciano confided equably. ‘Why don’t you allow me to treat you to a vacation instead? After working tirelessly on my behalf for more years than either of us care to count, you certainly deserve to spoil yourself for a change.’
At that suggestion, Costanza compressed her raspberry-tinted lips and said nothing. She recognised a warning when she heard one, knew exactly how far she could go with him and was always careful not to breach that boundary.
Suppressing a soundless sigh, Luciano lounged back in an elegant but deliberate sprawl in the corner of the limo. That amount of space was a luxury he had learned to live without. Piece by piece all that was soft and civilised in him had been stripped away by the prison regime while he fought the system. That unyielding system, the unspoken, unwritten and oft-denied rule that nevertheless decreed that a man who continued to plead innocence of his crime could not be seriously considered for early release by the parole board or even for the reward of a transfer to a less regimented open prison. Luciano had served his time and all of it had been hard time. Often, in prison parlance, he had been ‘banged up’ in his cell for as long as twenty-two mind-numbing hours a day, a particularly cruel torment for a male who had never lost his deep appreciation for the wide open spaces of the countryside.
Leaving that thought behind, for Luciano deemed looking back with regret to what could not be changed a weakness, he experienced a sudden fierce yearning to once again smell the delicate lemony aroma of the flowering vines flourishing on the steep slopes of the Villa Contarini estate. He had lived there until he was eight years old. He had played in the oak woods, raced around pretending to hunt wild boars, had dug without the smallest success for truffles and had brought home fresh fungi as an offering for his overworked mother, only to see his gifts continually claimed by his bone-idle grandfather instead.
But now in Luciano’s imagination, he saw himself standing high at the head of those lush green, close-planted rows of vines to look up at the bright blue cloudless sky and the endless hot sun and rejoice in what he had once taken entirely for granted. He left behind that vision with wry dark golden eyes and contemplated the astonishing fact that he now owned his childhood playground: the Villa Contarini, which stood high on the list of legendary Tuscan vineyards. Once too, he recalled without a shade of amusement, he had nourished a sentimental fantasy of bringing Kerry home as his bride to a very much smaller vineyard where he was paying a winemaker to live out what had once been the height of his own boyish dreams.
Fate gave with one hand and took with the other. Luciano had long accepted that unavoidable fact of life. To buy the vineyard and finance the hopeful creation of a wine to be reckoned with, he had had to concentrate his talents on forging a reputation in the business world and earning serious money. But nowhere was it written that he could not now rearrange his priorities. Ironically, the father whom he had despised from the instant of their first unforgettable meeting had finally forever ensured that he need never again earn his daily crust from humble toil.
‘I kept on a skeleton staff here…I thought you might like to have someone cook for you and answer the phone when I’m not around,’ Costanza told him as they vacated the limo outside a smart townhouse in one of London’s most impressive residential squares.
Accepting the key she handed him, Luciano strove not to wince at the underwritten threat of the possessive brunette welding herself to him like a second skin. Above all else, Luciano had always revelled in his freedom of choice and the loss of that privilege for so many years had made that liberty all the more precious a commodity.
‘Mr da Valenza…’ In the spacious hall beyond the front door, a nervous older woman in a plain dark dress hurried to acknowledge his arrival. ‘I’m Mrs Coulter, your housekeeper. You have some visitors waiting for you in the drawing room.’
An exasperated frownline divided Luciano’s winged ebony brows. In a helpful gesture, Mrs Coulter opened a panelled door on the other side of the hall, for, never having even visited the house that had once belonged to Roberto Tessari, he could have had no idea where to find his uninvited guests. Entering the gracious room, he fell still at the sight of the three women seated together in silence and almost groaned out loud in frustration.
Rochelle Bailey, Harold Linwood’s blonde, beautiful and bold stepdaughter by his second marriage, dressed to telegraph pure availability in a neckline low enough and a skirt short enough to bring on a heart attack in a sex-starved male.
Lesley Jennings, the very fanciable and clever lawyer from Carrington and Carrington, whose consultation visits to the prison and keen wit and humour had enlivened many a boring hour for him.
And, finally, Paola Massone, a distant cousin and daughter of the famous but currently struggling vintner, who had inherited Roberto Tessari’s title but none of his money. Self-assured, dark-haired and undeniably gorgeous, she gave him an expectant look that demanded that he acknowledge what she clearly saw as her superior claim to his attention. The equivalent of an Italian ‘It’ girl, born from a long and illustrious if impoverished line of ancestors, Paola wanted to marry her class to his cash and make wine and…other things with him.
A mocking smile on her pink lips, Rochelle stood up. ‘So, it’s make or break time, girls. Which one of us do you want to stay, Luciano?’ she demanded with typical bluntness.
Costanza entered the fray to widen scornful dark