The wealth and opulence of Long Island’s legendary Gold Coast was like a trip back in time to the old money, scandalous, glamorous tales immortalized in American fiction. High society dynasties born of the Industrial Revolution had built these lavish mansions and castles one after another along this sweep of the ruggedly beautiful northern coast, with gardens rivaling European grandeur.
They had sought to out-do one other, these American scions; to glitter as the Gold Coast’s preeminent jewel. But as with so many other symbols of that lavish time, little of the grandeur of those magnificent estates survived today, with only a few of the massive, character-filled mansions still left standing. Even legendary shipping magnate Giovanni Di Sione’s sprawling villa, built in the late 1800s as a rambling, Queen-Anne-style summer house to entertain the scion’s clients and financiers had been extensively renovated to stand as a shining symbol of modern architecture.
The ostentatious display of wealth, the almost tangible scent of old money in the air brought with its familiar irony for Nate Brunswick as he turned his Jaguar down the rolling, winding, stretch of road toward the Di Sione estate. He could buy the Gold Coast several times over with the wealth he’d amassed and add it to the vast global property empire he controlled and still never feel like he belonged.
It was a lesson he’d learned the hard way. That all the money in the world couldn’t heal old wounds. That new money would always be just that in New York—the spoils of an interloper who didn’t really belong. New blood might mix with blue blood, but it would never have the same status in the collective psyche of the elite.
It was a truth he would put right up there with the ten commandments: Thou shalt not aspire to join our realm. It has never been, nor will it ever be, yours.
He brought the Jag to a halt in front of his grandfather’s villa with a defiant squeal of its wheels. The villa’s imposing, Indiana-limestone facade gleamed in the late afternoon sun, setting off its graceful arches and multi-leveled roof line.
He sat for a moment, a heavy weight pressing down on his chest. Always this place inspired a wealth of emotion, all of it complex and decades in the making. But today he felt as if whatever higher power was up there high in the sky orchestrating this chess game that was life had reached inside him and yanked out his heart.
His grandfather was dying of leukemia. He’d been traveling so much of late, overseeing his sprawling, global property empire, he had had little time for his mentor, who had been the only father figure he’d ever known. He’d stood there, shell-shocked, as his half-sister Natalia had told him at her gallery opening that his grandfather’s leukemia was back, and this time, a bone marrow transplant from Nate would not save him.
Apparently not even the all-powerful Giovanni could cheat death twice, for he would die within months.
The swell of emotion he’d been fighting during the drive from Manhattan swept over him; threatened to wipe away the composure he had cultivated as a second skin. He blinked and pushed it away. He would not allow that expression of weakness. Not now and definitely not here.
He swung his long legs out of the car, wincing as his muscles protested the long drive in the ridiculously low-slung machine. He had barely put his foot on the top step of the sweeping column of stairs that led to the villa’s elegant entrance when Alma, the Di Sione’s long-time housekeeper opened the door.
“Master Nate,” Alma greeted him, ushering him in. “Giovanni is enjoying the last rays of the sun on the back veranda. He’s been anxiously awaiting your arrival.”
A twinge of guilt stirred low in his gut. He should have made more time for his grandfather, but he had fallen into the trap of thinking Giovanni was invincible like everyone else.
A few pleasantries exchanged with Alma, he set off toward the back of the villa, his footsteps echoing on the gleaming mahogany floors. He’d first visited this house at eighteen, hunted down by his half-brother Alex as the only genetic match for a bone marrow transplant that would save his grandfather’s life—a man Nate had never met.
A vision of his six half-siblings perched on the hand-made, wrought-iron and stone staircase, filled his head. They had sat there, lined up like birds on a telephone wire, big eyes inquisitive as Alex had led Nate past them into the salon to meet an ailing Giovanni for the first time.
Orphaned, they had been taken in by his grandfather after Nate’s father, Bastien, and his wife, Anna, had been killed in an alcohol and drug-fueled car crash. A tragedy to be sure but all Nate could remember was the isolation and bitterness his hardened, eighteen-year-old self had felt at the charmed life his half siblings had led while he and his mother had fought to survive.
The family he’d never been privy to as Bastien Di Sione’s illegitimate child.
Which was ancient history, Nate told himself as he stepped out onto the veranda with its incomparable views of the sparkling grey blue sweep of Long Island Sound. He had obliterated that iteration of himself and replaced it with a success story that no one could ignore—not even the aristocrats who loved to snub him.
His grandfather sat in a wooden, high-backed chair, bathed in the dying light of the sun. He turned with that sixth sense of his as Nate approached, a slow smile spreading across his olive-skinned face.
“Nathaniel. I was beginning to think Manhattan had eaten you up whole.”
Nate walked around the chair and stood in front of the man who had come to mean so much to him. A lump formed in his throat at how small, how fragile his once vital grandfather looked, even more wasted away than their last meeting. And now he knew why.
Giovanni stood and drew him into an embrace. The cancer, his treatments, had robbed his olive skin of its robust glow, turning it a sallow hue. His shoulders felt like skin and bone as Nate closed his fingers around them, his throat thickening with emotion. Despite the very mixed, complex feelings he held toward the Di Sione family, Giovanni had been the self-made, ultra successful, honorable man he had modeled himself after in the wake of his father’s failings. In those formative years, when his life could have gone either way with the anger consuming him, his grandfather had been the difference. Had shown him the man he could be.
He drew back, his gaze moving over his grandfather’s ravaged face. “Is there nothing that can be done? Are the doctors sure another transplant won’t help?”
Giovanni nodded and squeezed his shoulder. “They only did the transplant the first time because of my name and health, you know that. It’s my time, Nathaniel. I’ve had more of a life than many could ever dream of having. I’m at peace with it.”
His grandfather sat down and waved him into a chair. Nate took the one opposite him, waving off a maid when she appeared to offer refreshments. “I have plans to review when I get back to Manhattan.”
Giovanni told the maid to bring Nate a beer. “You work too much,” he admonished. “Life is for the living, Nathaniel. Who is going to keep you company the day you have made so many billions you can’t hope to spend it all?”
He had already reached that point. For him work, success, was biological, elemental, spurred by a survival instinct that would never rest as long as there was a deal to be made, another building block to be put into place.
“You know I’m not the type to settle down.”
“I wasn’t talking about the lack of a permanent woman in your life,” his grandfather came back wryly, “although that too could use some work. I’m talking about you being a workaholic. About you never getting off that jet of yours long enough to breathe fresh air, to register what season it is. You’re so caught up in making money you’re missing the true meaning of life.”
Nate lifted a brow. “Which is?”
“Family. Roots.” His grandfather frowned. “Your nomadic ways, your inability to put a stake in the ground, it won’t fulfill you in the long run. I hope you will realize that before it’s too late.”
“I’m only thirty-five,” Nate pointed out. “And you are as much of a workaholic, Giovanni. It’s our dominant trait. We don’t choose it. It chooses us.”
“I seem to be gaining some perspective given my current situation.” His grandfather’s eyes darkened. “That discipline becomes our vice, Nathaniel, when taken to extreme. I failed your father and by virtue of that, you, by spending every waking moment building Di Sione Shipping.”
Nate scowled. “He failed himself. He needed to own his vices but he never could.”
“There is truth in that.” Giovanni pinned his gaze on him. “I know you have your demons. I have them too. Ones that have haunted me every day of my life. But for you, it’s not too late. You have your whole life ahead of you. You have brothers and sisters who care about you, who want to be closer to you, yet you push them away. You want nothing to do with them.”
His jaw hardened. “I flew in for Natalia’s gallery opening.”
“Because you have a soft spot for her… Because she begged you to.” His grandfather shook his head. “Family should be the rock in your life. What sustains you when the storms of life take over.”
The suspicious glitter in his grandfather’s eyes, the bittersweet note in his voice made Nate wonder, not for the first time, about the secrets Giovanni had kept from his grandchildren. Why he had left Italy and come to America with only the clothes on his back, never to have contact with his family again.
“We’ve had this discussion,” he told his grandfather, his response coming out rougher than he’d intended. “I have made my peace with my siblings. That has to be enough.”
Giovanni lifted a brow. “Is it?”
Nate expelled a breath. Sank into a silence that said this particular conversation was over.
Giovanni sat back in his chair and rested his gaze on the sun, burning its way into the horizon. “I need you to do me a favour. There is a ring that means a great deal to me I would like you to track down. I sold it to a collector years ago when I first came to America. I have no idea where it is or who possesses it, I only have a description I can give you.”
Nate was not surprised by the request. Natalia had mentioned at her gallery opening all of the Di Sione grandchildren except Alex had been sent on quests around the world to find similar treasures for Giovanni. The trinkets that his grandfather called his Lost Mistresses in the childhood tales he had told his grandchildren were, in fact, real entities his siblings had begun to recover: various pieces of precious jewelry, a Faberge box and the book of poetry Natalia had found for him in Greece along with a husband in Angelos. What the grandchildren couldn’t figure out was the significance of the pieces to their grandfather.
Nate nodded. “Consider it done. What do these pieces mean to you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
His grandfather’s gaze turned wistful. “I hope someday to be able to tell you that. But first, I need to see them again. The ring, of all of the pieces, is the closest to my heart. I must have it back.”
“And you will send Alex on the last task,” Nate speculated.
His relationship, or the lack of one he had with his oldest half brother who ran Di Sione Shipping, was volatile and complex. Giovanni had made Alex work his way up the ranks to CEO, starting out at the very bottom loading goods at the shipyards, while in contrast, he had appointed Nate to a desk job straight out of the university education he had provided his grandson, compensation Nate figured, for his having had so little growing up.
But what ran far deeper than his grandfather’s preferential treatment of Nate at Di Sione Shipping, Nate suspected, was that Alex blamed him for his parents death. The night Nate’s mother, his father’s mistress, had shown up on Bastien Di Sione’s doorstep, ten-year-old Nate in tow, begging for financial support had been the night his father had wrapped his car around a tree and killed himself and his wife. There had been a violent argument between the adults prior to the crash, perhaps the pre-curser to his father’s reckless performance behind the wheel.
Nate shook his head to clear it of things that could never and would never change. “I’ll begin the search right away. Is there anything else I can do?”
“Know your brothers and sisters,” his grandfather said. “Then I will die a happy man.”
An image of Alex’s young face in the window that night Nate and his mother had stood on his father’s porch begging for assistance, filled his head. The confusion written across his brother’s face…
Only Alex had known of Nate’s existence in the years that had followed, yet he had never once revealed his secret—not until Giovanni had fallen ill. If Nate wondered why, when surely the revelation would have changed his own life irrevocably, when sometimes the question burned a hole right through the centre of him, the two brothers had never discussed it.
And really, he thought, shaking his head and bringing himself back to the present, what was the point? Nothing could ever alter the circumstances of that night. What fate had thrown at all of them… Some things were just better off left alone.
Nate put finding Giovanni’s ring at the top of his priority list. He gave the description to the private investigator he used to research the mega-million-dollar deals he made on a daily basis and received a response back within forty-eight hours. The ring had been purchased at auction by a Sicilian family decades ago and was, apparently, not for sale.
A patently incorrect term in Nate’s book. Everything and everyone on the planet were for sale if the price tag was high enough. He simply had to come up with a number at which the family would find his offer too sweet to resist.
Concluding his business in New York, he had dinner with his mother, who complained per usual that he was never home, neglected to mention he was doing an errand for Giovanni because the Di Siones were always a sore spot for her, then flew to Palermo on Wednesday. Not known for wasting an opportunity, he checked into the six-star Hotel Giarruso he had been eyeing for acquisition and scheduled a meeting with the consortium who owned it for later that day.
His first order of business after he’d been welcomed into the luxury two-level suite with a personal check in, was to make himself human again. He stepped under a bruisingly hot shower in the palatial marble bathroom on the upper level and closed his eyes, letting the punishing spray beat down on him. No matter how luxurious the jet, how smooth the ride, he never slept on planes. His PA, Josephine, liked to call it the control freak in him, but the truth was he always slept with one eye open, a habit he’d developed while living in a series of sketchy Bronx apartments he and his mother had rented where bad things could and did happen on a regular basis.
Installing his mother in a luxury apartment with twenty-four-seven security and ensuring she never had to work again should have provided him with some level of peace. Instead, his wary nature persisted. When you’d run errands for a neighborhood enforcer for a couple of years in your misguided youth before your mother straightened you out, you knew danger lurked everywhere, particularly for someone with his money and reputation. A smart man kept his eyes open.
His humanity suitably revived, he stepped out of the shower, sluiced the water from his face and grabbed a towel to dry off. Intent on answering a few urgent emails before a cat nap and his meeting, he headed down to the lounge. His brain busy running the numbers the lawyers had given him for the hotel’s value, he didn’t notice the chambermaid bent over the cherry wood bar until he’d taken a couple of steps into the room.
His first impression was that she had the sweetest behind he’d ever seen. Round, firm, shapely buttocks stretched the material of her pewter-coloured uniform tight across her hips. Spectacular legs completed the picture. His imagination effortlessly supplemented the rest of the tempting scenario: her face and remaining assets would be equally as luscious.
But what the hell was she doing in his suite?
“Would you mind,” he requested deliberately, taking the final two steps into the lounge, “telling me what you are doing here when I left explicit instructions with the butler not to be disturbed?”
She straightened and turned, all in one wary, slow-motion move. His gaze slid over her. Her waist in the stylish-for-a-chambermaid dress was tiny, cinched in just above those delectable hips. Her ample cleavage strained the buttons of the modest, short-sleeved style, as if she was too abundant to contain in it. Her glossy dark brown hair was caught up in a tight ponytail, her cheekbones high and defined under the most stunning pair of espresso-brown eyes he’d ever seen.
He’d been wrong in his estimation. She wasn’t just temptingly attractive—she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever laid eyes on. Exotic in that olive-skinned, perfectly-curved Sicilian sense of the word.
His body tightened as biology demanded in the face of such perfection. He imagined one sultry look from those eyes and most men would be on their knees.
Except right now, he noted, those eyes were aimed at him in a wary perusal, tracing their way down to where the towel was slung around his hips. They widened; darkened into giant espresso orbs. His towel had worked its way lower during his trip down the stairs, sitting now on his hip bones. He was giving her an eyeful. A gentleman would remedy that. But he had never been, nor would he ever be, a gentleman.
This was a six-star hotel he was considering purchasing. He had told his private butler he was not to be disturbed. He wasn’t letting it go.
He lifted an eyebrow. “So?”
Dio mio, but he was beautiful. Mina dragged her gaze up to the American’s face, her teeth sinking into her bottom lip. He was all defined, perfectly symmetrical muscle, as ideally proportioned as the models in the pictures their teachers had shown them in the anatomy lessons they’d given them in finishing school to prepare the girls to interact as they’d called it, with the opposite sex. As if her classmates hadn’t known what the internet was. As if some of them of them hadn’t had their own personal anatomy lesson already…
His dark, brooding gaze slid over her, sending a pulse up her spine. If she had looked up the meaning of intenso in the dictionary, his picture would have been right there beside it. Although the glare he wore suggested he had limited patience to go with the definition.
“The butler informed me you were at a meeting.” She lifted her chin, pasting a composed look on her face while she searched desperately for the confidence she’d been taught to effortlessly exude. “I knocked before I came in, Signore Brunswick.”
“My meeting is this afternoon.” His gaze sharpened as it pinned her to the spot. “Isn’t that the point of a six-star hotel? To be six steps ahead of my schedule, anticipating my every wish?”
Mina’s brain went straight to the bedroom on the second level and what this arrogant man would demand of a woman in bed. Her non-existent experience deferred to her imagination to fill in the blanks. She bet it would be worth every second of her enforced capitulation.
Heat flooded her cheeks. Her fingers tightened around the bar of chocolate she held. His gaze flickered, narrowed, as if he’d read her thoughts down to her final, helpless surrender. Merda. She shifted her weight to both feet, her stomach tying itself in knots. What was she thinking? She was engaged. And furthermore, she didn’t have naughty thoughts like this.
She cleared her throat and held up the chocolate bar. “It is my job to anticipate your every need. I was stocking the bar with our fine Sicilian hazelnut chocolate.”
The beautiful American strode toward her and took the chocolate out of her hand. A whiff of citrus mixed with spice filled her head. She breathed in deeply as she drank him in. He was even more devastating close up, his thick dark hair spiky and wet from the shower, designer stubble covering the square set of his jaw.
“We make it our policy to know everything about our guests based on past visits,” she sputtered nervously. “I brought hazelnut and brazil nut.”
He crossed his corded, very fine arms over one other. “Mistake number one…Lina,” he said, peering at her name tag, which did not use her real name but the name she’d given her manager when she’d taken the job. “I prefer milk chocolate.”
“Oh.” That threw her for a loop. They were never wrong here at Hotel Giarruso. Ever. “Well…,” she stumbled, “Si. We must have made a mistake. It happens very rarely. I’ll fix it.”
“What else?” he asked.
“What else do you know about me then?”
Other than the fact that he was known to fraternize with tall, beautiful blondes and that she was not to bat an eye if she came across one in his room who was not registered here, despite their strict security policy?
The heat in her cheeks deepened. His gaze narrowed. She desperately filed through the intelligence she’d been given. “We know that you tend to forget to pack the charger for your laptop. I have brought you a universal one.”
He walked over to the coffee table. The towel slipped further, giving her an eyeful of chiseled hipbone. Maledizione. She needed to get out of here.
He picked up a cord, a charging pack attached. “Not so much of a perk for me this visit.”
Her nails dug into her palms as her even-keeled disposition started to slip. He was something else. She nodded toward the bar. “We have stocked your favourite single malt scotch.”
Her blood started to boil. Being inquisitioned by an arrogant male in a towel that might fall off at any moment was above and beyond the call of duty. Way above her pay grade.
She squared her shoulders. “I understand all of this might not be revolutionary, Signore Brunswick, but it’s what is expected of us. To surround you with the comforts of home. Although I do agree, we could do better.”
Curiosity flashed in those beautiful dark eyes. “Such as?” he purred. “I am all ears.”
She took a step back. An amused glitter filled his eyes as he tracked the movement. “I would go beyond cataloguing a guest’s preferences and start anticipating them. For instance, you are known to be a morning runner. If it were me arranging things, I would have had a list of suitable routes through some of Palermo’s most beautiful neighborhoods sitting on your coffee table for you to follow. Another route to spend most of your run in our most beautiful park. Perhaps one to visit our most famous monuments.”
The cynical twist to his mouth smoothed out. “What else?”
“You are a fan of a particular Pinot Noir from the Mount Etna region. I would stock that in your room as we have done so, but I would also include another lesser-known wine from what we Sicilians think is the best vineyard in that region—a wine you cannot purchase in the US.”
A gleam of approval fired his eyes. “One more.”
She chewed on her lip, her confidence returning. “You are known to appreciate the opera if you are accompanied on a trip with a…compagno. I would anticipate an outing for you. Secure tickets at the opera and a gown for the lady, colours suitable for a blonde of course as that seems to be your preference.”
A smile tugged at his mouth, the dimple that cleaved his cheek transforming him from arrogant to utterly breathtaking. “And you were on such a roll there with your intriguing ideas, Lina. Until you you got to the preference for blondes…”
His gaze blazed a deliberate trail over her high ponytail, down over her face to the slightly strained buttons of her dress she’d been cursing since day one of this job. The pure male appreciation in his eyes made her pulse pound.
“It just so happens my last few compagnos have been blonde, but in actual fact, I prefer exotic looking brunettes.”
She forgot to breathe, her head spinning from a lack of oxygen. His stark appraisal was most certainly improper. Most definitely had a message attached to it. She knew she should look away, but the heat coursing through her was like nothing she’d ever felt before. It was like her skin was on fire, like he knew exactly what was under her dress and he wanted his hands all over it.
She took a step back and yanked in a deep breath. Regained her senses. “Perhaps,” she suggested, lifting her gaze to his, “I can have a bottle of the pinot noir delivered to your room?”
His long, dark lashes swept down in a heavy lidded look. “Will you deliver it personally?”
She gasped. Took another step back. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I’m off duty in an hour. I have a date tonight.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Undoubtedly.”
The towel slipped another inch. She made a garbled sound at the back of her throat, shoved the other two bars of chocolate in her apron on the table and fled, her muttered “buonanotte” followed by his low laughter.
“Enjoy your date, Lina. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
She thought that since this was Signore Brunswick and his improper towel they were talking about, that might give her a great deal of latitude.
Nate watched the chambermaid go, amusement coursing through him. He didn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed himself so much. Yes, it had been a bit cruel to put the delectable Lina through that, but he was meeting with the owners of this hotel in a few hours and a hotel was only as good as its service. He’d wanted to know what kind of people the Giarruso employed, and Lina had potential.
She clearly had brains to go with her beauty. And not just brains, but a keen understanding of the clientele she served and what could enhance their experience. Which had, in the end, made up for the breach in his privacy and his personal butler’s mistake.
His chambermaid’s ideas had given him food for thought. Certainly society was moving toward personalization in every industry and the products that were being developed reflected that. To offer his clients things they hadn’t even asked for but might appreciate complemented some of the ideas he was already working on. It wouldn’t work for every client, some would find it an intrusion. But for others it could prove to be that particular experience, that unique value add that developed in them an affinity for the brand.
He had loved Lina’s examples. They were doable, creative ideas that would certainly impress.
His butler appeared with a bottle of Marc de Grazia’s Guardiola Mount Etna red just before his meeting. Grown at the highest elevation of any red grape varietal in all of Europe, it looked intriguing.
He slid the bottle into the fridge, a smile on his lips. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t wish his delectable chambermaid were here to share it with him. That he would have enjoyed sampling it on her fantastic body. He knew the instant attraction he’d experienced toward her had been reciprocated by the flare of awareness he’d seen in her dark eyes. But she was taken, unfortunately, at least for tonight.
And perhaps that was for the best. He was here to retrieve Giovanni’s ring. To fulfill his obligation to his grandfather as quickly as possible so that Giovanni could enjoy the sentimental memories associated with the bauble as long as his life allowed. Perhaps pick up a Palermo-based luxury hotel while he was at it.
Seducing an innocent-looking brunette wasn’t in the plans, as much as his macho core wouldn’t mind demonstrating to Lina how utterly lacking her date would ultimately prove compared to a night with him.
A pity, really.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.