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“Your husband was a good man, Baroness. I’m sorry for your loss.”
A good man. Was he?
Helena Von Lienz smiled politely and bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from asking the stranger the question that had been burning in her gut since her late husband, Anton Von Lienz, died in the fiery crash off the Amalfi Coast highway six months ago with Enzo De Luca, patriarch of the esteemed De Luca family.
But the well-wisher had already moved along the impromptu receiving line to speak to Matteo De Luca, oldest son of Enzo, who stood next Lena. Another unknown person stepped up to gush similar empty sentiments.
Matteo had assured her only family would attend the memorial service to scatter Anton’s and Enzo’s ashes. She certainly hadn’t counted on each and every person queuing up to express their condolences. But somehow, after the memorial, she and Matteo had found themselves wedged into a corner of the terrace under a fruit-bearing lemon tree that was next to an obnoxiously lush bougainvillea. She was numb with grief, so fresh it felt as if the accident had happened yesterday rather than nearly half a year ago. In some ways, it seemed as if Anton had been gone for a long time. In other ways, it seemed as if it was just yesterday. Due to the nature of the accident – the car plunging off the cliff – the Italian police had investigated. It had taken time. So only now were they here, scattering the ashes, saying their goodbyes.
Lena glanced down the seemingly endless line of well-wishers. It snaked around the lavish infinity pool that blended into the Mediterranean from its perch high atop the upper patio of the De Luca family’s compound on the aptly named crescent-shaped island of Isola della Luna.
Obviously, the meaning of family was relative to the De Luca clan. Their nuclear family included the five De Luca brothers, Matteo, Rocco, Nico, Marco and Alessandro. When she factored in other blood relations such as their nona, various uncles and cousins – and who could forget Prince Santino III, the reigning monarch of Isola del Sole – he was related to them somehow, but Lena couldn’t remember exactly – the guest list became unmanageable.
When the honorary family was added in – heaven forbid they left out anyone – it was downright ridiculous. Judging by the crowd, Lena wondered if there was a single soul left on the big island, Isola del Sole. But her shoes pinched and her face hurt from forced cordiality, which didn’t match how she felt inside. Inside, she was just numb. All she wanted was to excuse herself and disappear from this infernal ring of hell that had ripped wide open the wounds she’d worked so hard to heal.
When Matteo had called her about plans for the joint memorial service, Lena had almost declined. Standing here now, she wished she had opted for something more private, because returning to the place where her husband had lost his life was a lot more difficult than she expected for so many different reasons.
But the stark reality remained—scattering Anton’s ashes by herself hadn’t felt right either. Since Anton didn’t have family, except for three ex-wives who had come before Lena and couldn’t be bothered to attend the service, it seemed as if the De Lucas were the closest thing to relatives Anton had. He’d certainly spent enough time at the family’s private compound. In the fourteen years that Lena had been married to Anton, she’d never been invited.
Her heart was heavy. But when Matteo had said, “The famiglia needs closure. Enzo’s and Anton’s friends need closure. I’m sure you do, too,” she’d agreed to leave Miami and make the trek back to the Amalfi coast she where she’d vowed she’d never return.
Famous last words.
When she set aside her pride, she had to admit there probably wasn’t a better final resting place for her late husband.
Now that she was here, she wished she could find the peace of mind and heart that Matteo claimed would come through a simple ceremony where people told heartwarming and sometimes bawdy stories about the men.
She’d declined when they’d asked if she wanted to say a few words about Anton. Because the only thing she wanted to say as she stood there in the blistering August heat with the sun beating down on her was, “Can anyone please tell me why my husband and Enzo were with two women half their age the night they died?”
“Are you okay?” Matteo’s hand was on the small of her back as he leaned down and whispered the words into her ear.
She was five-ten in her stocking feet, and her Louboutins lifted her over the six-foot mark, but Matteo still had a good three inches on her. As Lena stared up into his espresso brown eyes, she thought she glimpsed genuine concern.
“It’s a little warm out here,” she answered. “And I’m exhausted.”
Matteo nodded. With a flick of his hand, he motioned to a middle-aged man in a gray suit who had been standing back from the fray. The man came over and Matteo said something to him that Lena didn’t hear. The next thing she knew, Gray Suit was informing the well-wishers that while the Baroness and Matteo De Luca appreciated their support, Matteo and Helena needed to leave.
Ugh. She hated it when people called her the Baroness. Even if it was out of respect, it made her feel ancient.
“Please stay as long as you’d like,” Gray Suit said to the crowd. “Enjoy the refreshments that are set up on the lower-level terrace.”
Gray Suit motioned toward a stone pathway that would take the extended family and guests away from the area where the ceremony had been and down to a lavish spread of food and drink.
Before Lena could see if everyone followed instructions, Matteo slipped an arm around her waist and guided her toward the side door of the pool house.
The cabana – if she could call it that – was larger than the apartments she and her mother had lived in when Lena was growing up and it had been just the two of them.
“Better?” Matteo asked once they were behind closed doors and in the glorious air conditioning.
“Yes, thank you,” she said. “But we didn’t have to leave the reception. Or you didn’t have to leave, anyway. I hate to pull you away.”
“At the rate things were going we would’ve been cornered for hours,” Matteo said, his Italian accent coloring the words. “I was getting a little weary myself.”
She doubted that, but he was a gentleman to make her feel comfortable.
“Thank you for everything, Matteo. It was a lovely service and a nice turnout. I’m sure Anton and Enzo would’ve deeply appreciated it. But I need to leave.”
Now she needed some time alone to process the day’s events and prepare for her trip home tomorrow.
“Baroness, wouldn’t you like to rest for a while before we go back to del Sole?” he asked. “I can arrange to have some refreshment brought up.”
She shook her head. “No, thank you, and please call me Helena, Matteo. When someone calls me Baroness it makes me feel about a hundred years old.”
“But it’s your title.”
“It was my husband’s title. For me it’s just a courtesy. The greater courtesy would be to call me by my first name. Or Lena. That’s what my friends call me.”
She and Matteo weren’t that far apart in age. With Anton there had been a twenty-five year age difference. She’d met her late husband on her first job for Italian Vogue. He was a renowned fashion photographer and she was a newly discovered ingénue. They fell madly, passionately in love, despite the age difference. She’d been nineteen when they married; he had been forty-four and devastatingly handsome.
Not so long ago, the twenty-five years had seemed irrelevant. So had the fact that she’d been the fourth Baroness Von Lienz. She’d been young and naive enough to believe that his other marriages hadn’t worked because—well, because he’d been looking for her.
What a fool she’d been. She’d loved Anton deeply and she’d believed he’d loved her until the night of the accident eighteen months ago.
Since then, she’d questioned just about everything she’d ever held sacred and true.
“Okay, Lena it is, if that’s what you wish to be called. Your wish is my pleasure.” He punctuated his words with a nod. He carried himself so formally around her. For a crazy, disconnected moment, she wished he’d drop the pretence and relax.
He gestured to the yellow and white striped sofa. “Please have a seat. I will ring for some refreshments and have them brought up.”
He took out his phone and started to dial.
“No, really, I’m fine, thank you. Please don’t go to any trouble. In fact, I think I’d like to leave as soon as possible and go back to my room at the hotel. That way you can get back to your guests.”
He put the phone back into his pocket and looked at her as if he wanted to say something, but then his expression changed.
“Let’s give everyone a few moments to clear out of this area and then we can make our way down to the dock in peace and the boat will take us back to the big island. Have a seat and let’s have a glass of wine while we wait.”
Before she could protest, he’d disappeared into another room. Because she didn’t have much of a choice, Lena sat down and smoothed her hand over the sofa cushion. Raw silk – not exactly practical pool house decor, but Lena imagined the guests who were afforded the opportunity to swim in the Isola della Luna pool would have the good grace not to plop a wet behind on a couch like that.
Or the matching yellow wingback chairs.
A stained glass coffee table with an inlaid image of the moon – for Isola della Luna, no doubt – lent a whimsical touch amidst the room’s posh splendor. The place was light and bright, from the pale wooden floors to the white stucco walls and sunny yellow silk drapes, which matched the sofa and chairs and hung on either side of the expansive windows accenting the breathtaking views of the big island, Isola del Sole.
Matteo rounded the corner with a bottle of wine and two stemmed glasses. He set one glass on the coffee table, as if the piece of furniture were something the family had simply picked up at Ikea and not the priceless original they’d probably commissioned from a Murano glass artist, and began pouring a healthy serving of Meroi Friulano into the other before handing it to her.
“Thank you,” she said.
Matteo nodded as he filled his glass and then seated himself in the chair that was across from her.
They sipped their wine in silence for a moment. It was a light, refreshing, fruity variety. Lena didn’t know a lot about wine, but she knew what she liked when she tasted it. This was good. Anton had been a wine enthusiast. Before his death, he’d joked about buying a vineyard and tending the land in his retirement.
The memory made Lena’s heart hurt. Now, he wouldn’t get to realize that dream. All because of one reckless night; one ridiculous fight. She took another sip to wash away to bitterness of it all.
“Did you know the women who were in the car with Enzo and Anton the night they died?” The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them.
“I didn’t.” Matteo fixed her with his penetrating gaze, which seemed to neither patronize nor pity her for asking the question that rendered her so vulnerable. It was a simple matter-of-fact gaze to go with a simple matter-of-fact answer. “Their names were on the police report. I can get that information for you, if you need it.”
Lena shook her head. “No, thanks. I have their names. I’d just like to know why they were in the car with your father and my husband. I mean, your father was free to do as he pleased, but Anton was…married. Obviously.”
Her shaking hand fluttered to the neckline of her black dress. She fingered her pearls.
“It’s not unreasonable that you would want to know the answer to that question.”
Lena waited for the implied but, with which he’d punctuated the sentence.
When he didn’t continue, Lena asked, “What? It sounded as if you wanted to qualify your statement.”
Matteo frowned. “No, I don’t mean to qualify my words.”
“But you were thinking something else, weren’t you? If so, just say it.” She was pushing because she knew that a well-bred man like Matteo De Luca wouldn’t simply blurt the fact that he knew Anton was having an affair. That was if, in fact, Anton was cheating.
His brows were still knit as if he were trying to solve an equation. “What is it you want me to say?”
That was a fair question.
“I don’t know that there’s anything I want you to say. I’m simply in search of the truth.”
The air conditioner buzzed and hummed. The price one paid for climate control via one of those single-zone European air conditioners. When you converted an old fortresses such as this, with its solid stone walls that dated back to Tiberius and ancient Roman times into a family residence – even one this grand – the remodel usually didn’t include central air and heat. Not a place like this.
“Would the truth change anything?” Matteo asked.
Lena blinked. “The truth could change everything, depending on what it proved. I need to know if my husband was unfaithful.”
Matteo made a noise.
“We don’t have to talk about this.” Lena stood. “In fact, please forget I said anything about it at all. I think it’s best that I get back to the hotel. I’m leaving early in the morning for Venice and I’d like to get a good night’s sleep.”
Matteo stood, too. “I didn’t mean to offend you. And I apologize if I did. I suppose I don’t see the point in torturing yourself with the unknown or things that can’t be changed. Anton obviously loved you deeply.”
She was tempted to ask him how he knew that, but decided not to, just in case he was simply being cordial. He didn’t know her; not really. He didn’t know the details of her marriage. He was being nice, and, yes, at one point in their marriage, Anton had loved her. That was one thing she was sure of.
He’d doted on her and made her feel adored. As if she were the only woman in the world.
“I’m not offended. I simply want to know the truth. It’s a big part of the reason I came back to Isola del Sole and I can’t let it rest until I’ve exhausted every avenue.”
“Do you mind if I ask what you plan to do once you find what you’re looking for?”
She dropped back down onto the edge of the sofa. “That’s when I’ll be able to put everything behind me.”
“Including Isola del Sole?”
“Especially Isola del Sole.”
Matteo studied his wine glass for a moment before looking at her. “If you’re so intent on exorcising the past and leaving it behind you, I have a suggestion that could help.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know anything about the women in the car.”
“I don’t.” He leaned forward, set his wine on the coffee table, and then propped his forearms on his knees, looking as if he were weighing his words.
“If you’re looking for a fresh start, surely you don’t want to hold onto Anton’s shares of dei Fiori Hotels.”
Lena sighed and shook her head. Years ago, Matteo’s father had lost the shares to Anton in, of all things, a poker game. Anton had left them to her.
“You want to talk about this now?”
“Why not?” he said. “Now is as good a time as any.”
She should’ve been able to rattle off at least ten reasons why not, but sitting there under the scrutiny of his gaze, she couldn’t seem to remember a single one.
She got up and walked over to the French doors. Maybe it was because he was such a good looking guy—he really was—or maybe it was simply the intensity that seemed to radiate off him in waves, but suddenly, she couldn’t seem to focus.
All she could think about was how Matteo’s driving intensity must translate into passion in the bedroom. She inhaled a sharp, but blessedly silent breath. Where on earth had that inappropriate thought come from? Looking out at the now-empty patio, she tried to regain her equilibrium.
A grief therapist had suggested she shouldn’t make any big life decisions for the first year after Anton’s death. Selling the dei Fiori shares would certainly constitute a big decision.
Since she was still grieving and obviously confused and still trying to sort out her future, holding steady was the best advice anyone had given her since she’d found herself in the midst of this emotional quicksand.
“I’m not interested in selling my share, Matteo.”
She sensed his presence behind her, but she didn’t realize exactly how close he was until she whirled around.
“I want to leave the Amalfi coast and all its bad memories behind, but that doesn’t mean I want to divest myself of everything that reminds me of Anton.”
“Of course,” he said. “We don’t have to talk about it now.”
She hated herself, because her eyes brimmed and the tears spilled over. Suddenly, it seemed as if all the emotions she’d been damming up since the night Anton had walked out on her flooded to the forefront and she couldn’t stop them.
The next thing she knew she was in Matteo’s arms. He held her as she sobbed on his shoulder. Maybe it was a minute, maybe it was an hour. Time seemed to stand still in the comfort of his strong arms. For the first time since she could remember, she felt safe and protected. He was so warm. She snuggled in closer, inhaling the scent of him—sandalwood and leather—and something clean and green and so inviting.
He held her tighter and she started to melt a little at the feel his hot breath on her temple. Her own breathing was a ragged sigh as she exhaled and tilted her head back to look up at him.
As he took her face in his hands, her beating heart was the only audible sound. His hooded eyes were hungry and his nearness was overwhelming. A dizzying shimmer of wanting gripped her the second before his lips skimmed her cheek, finding their way to her mouth.
The kiss started slow and soft, then ignited into voracious need that had her parting her lips to let him in. She fisted her hands into the collar of his suit, leaning into him as if her very life’s breath depended on him. He pulled her tighter, as if staking his claim. The kiss was like a wordless confession.
He tasted like Chianti, spice, and a delicious unspoken promise that made the whole world disappear. It had been ages since she’d been able to lose herself in anything, free from her grief over Anton—
She pulled away from Matteo. Her hand flew to her mouth as she staggered back a few steps. What was she doing allowing him to kiss her like that? What was wrong with her? How could she let this happen? Especially since Matteo was clearly trying to seduce her so he could get what he wanted – Anton’s hotel shares.
Not that she deserved them any more than Matteo did.
Guilt sat in her stomach like a heavy rock and she deserved to carry it around with her for the rest of her life.
Her husband was dead. And while Lena knew, technically, it wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t help but feel a little responsible. If she hadn’t fought with Anton that night. If he hadn’t left in such a fury, maybe he would still be here. If he were here, she certainly wouldn’t be kissing Matteo De Luca. In fact, she had no business doing that now.
“I can’t… I can’t do this. I have to go.”
She grabbed her bag and ran out of the pool house.
End of Excerpt