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“Is this the new piece for the loggia?”
Surprised to hear Matteo De Luca’s voice out here in the open-air shed behind the garden supply house, Declan looked up from the crate he’d been unpacking. A bead of perspiration slid down his neck, but he ignored it. He was finally getting used to the climate here in Amalfi. These days, he only occasionally dreamed of the Highlands, where the air was as sharp as crystals.
“Yes.” He had several layers of packing yet to remove, so he couldn’t show Matteo how exquisite she was. Rosaline… a rare, almost affordable find by a fifteenth-century sculptor, a man who had been as gifted with the female form as he was with carving flowers.
Declan ran his fingers along the bubble-wrapped contours of Rosaline’s face, gentle and somber, tilted down toward the flowers that dropped from her fingers and spilled down her legs.
“She’s a beauty. She’ll be perfect in the southern nook. We need something there to draw the eye. Otherwise, the space is wasted. And—”
He stopped himself. He could go on about the gardens for hours. Every detail fascinated him, and every detail, he knew, made a difference. But other people—normal people—just wanted pretty flowers and comfortable seats. And then they wanted to move on.
“You don’t have to justify your purchase,” Matteo said with a smile. “You know I trust you completely.”
Declan nodded. He did know, and he appreciated it. After spending the past ten years acquiring properties for his family’s real estate business, he’d decided to make a break and return to what he loved—landscape architecture. But obviously that left him, at thirty-two, an untested newbie. He didn’t possess the portfolio that would have truly justified landing the dei Fiori garden redesign.
He had been given the job only because he and Matteo had been friends and ATO brothers at Cornell, in the States. Matteo had been with him at the frat house when Declan’s family had first coerced him into switching majors, into giving up gardens for real estate, finance, and a lifetime of soul-crushing boredom.
A true friend, Matteo had remained by his side, even when Declan started drinking to drown his twenty-year-old self-pity. He’d been there, stoic and nonjudgmental, for the whole awful night, most of which Declan had mercifully forgotten. He had a feeling women had been involved, women and nightclubs and dancing and bitter laughter.
As the poet said, Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But alas, we never do.
Now there was a poet who might have met the Muldoons.
Matteo cleared his throat. He probably realized he’d triggered bad memories. “Anyhow, I can’t hang around till you unveil her. I’m meeting Lena for lunch. I just came to ask whether you’ll be at this afternoon’s meeting. I know it’s Saturday, but—”
“Do you really need me?” Declan took a box cutter and sliced carefully through the next layer of bubble wrap. He’d had no intention of attending the meeting, which supposedly would review the details of Rocco De Luca’s wedding.
Declan glanced up at Matteo, who was grinning wryly. Matteo probably knew he’d have to hogtie Declan to get him there.
This was undoubtedly why the pundits suggested you never hire family or friends. Pals didn’t really know how to behave like obedient employees.
“It’s just that… frankly, I could use the time better out here.” Declan peeled more wrap away with a crackling sound. “Something’s wrong with the water feature on the second terrace, and—”
“And you hate office meetings like the plague.” Matteo finished for him.
Declan shrugged. “I think better outdoors.”
And breathed better, and created better, and simply felt more alive. Instinctively, he inhaled, filling his lungs with clean, flower-sweet Amalfi air.
That might have been the worst of the Muldoon Incorporated years—all those hours entombed in artificially lit offices, while people droned endlessly about numbers.
Well, not the worst. The worst had been finding out that his stepbrother, his father and his prospective father-in-law were, behind his back, making corrupt deals to grow Muldoon Incorporated’s coffers.
His father, okay, that Declan could believe. And Mr. Fordyce, too.
Declan had been six when David had been born to his father’s second wife, and he’d adored his baby brother. He’d protected him from the start—protected him from getting scolded for swinging his toy golf club indoors; from getting rejected by the cute girl in third grade; from flunking World Lit; from parking tickets and sartorial fiascos and mixing liquors.
So to discover that David had embroiled him in this kind of scandal…
“You know David’s been calling Zio Gianni,” Matteo said. “Every day. The poor man is starting to worry. David says you never answer your cell.”
“Yeah. Well, he’s not lying about that, at least.”
Even if he lied about everything else.
“You aren’t ever going to talk to him?”
Declan shrugged. It had been over a month now, and he still got hot when he thought about it. “They just want me to come back. Or to bail them out. Or to lie for them. Or maybe to buy Mariota’s father’s silence by going back to her.”
“That’s crazy. Marrying for money…”
Declan didn’t want to talk about David right now. He’d been in a good mood, looking forward to seeing Rosaline installed in the garden. “Tell Gianni that David’s crazy, and he should ignore him. And tell Rocco I’m sorry to miss the meeting.”
Matteo never missed a subtle hint. “Okay, well, I’ll find you later and recap anything you need to know.” He grinned. “If there is anything you need to know.”
Declan smiled, too. He knew Matteo was wholeheartedly devoted to making his hotel chain great again. But, deep inside, Matteo probably disliked meetings, too. All De Lucas had wild streaks, whether they wore them blazing on the surface or hidden behind an elegantly knotted tie.
He accompanied Matteo out toward the stairs that led down to the hotel. The path wasn’t made for two muscular men to walk abreast, so with every other step their shoulders brushed oleander and wisteria, filling the air with even more perfume.
Soon the sea came into view, and they both paused, instinctively, to drink in the beauty. No wonder Matteo felt so passionate about the hotel. It was a gem, extraordinary even here, on this enchanted coastline where every house, every tree, every sunset, was full of charm.
Today, the blue water twinkled under a yellow-beach ball sun—Amalfi in its playful mood, a call to adventure and fun. The tourists were too far away to identify anyone, but Declan spotted a blonde ponytail bouncing over a turquoise sarong, and all his senses went on high alert.
It probably wasn’t Sophie. The hotel had only, what…about a hundred fair-haired beauties? Besides, he doubted she’d head out for a swim this early in the day. She was a true blonde, with tender skin that undoubtedly freckled and burned.
But she was on his mind, after the other night, when he’d had to call on every shred of willpower to go home and not ride the elevator up to room three-fifteen. He’d seen her a few times since then…she seemed to spend a lot of time sketching in the gardens…but never alone, thank goodness.
Sophie Smith intrigued him a little too much. She confused him. Frankly, the authenticity of her coloring was the only thing he was absolutely sure about. The rest of the woman was a mystery.
“Matteo. One more thing…” He stopped, the box cutter still in his hands, his gaze following the anonymous blonde below.
Matteo stopped, too. “Sorry. If you want to buy another fifteenth century sculpture, the answer is no. I still trust you, but I can’t afford it.”
Declan laughed. He would need something special for the pavilion setting, where Rocco’s wedding would be held, but that spot wasn’t right for a Renaissance garden, which was why he was determined to go modern.
They’d worry about that later. If the hotel couldn’t afford it, maybe Declan would present new statuary as his wedding gifts to the De Luca brothers. Matteo and Helena had recently surprised everyone with a spontaneous, whirlwind wedding. He still owed them a gift, and he had no plans for what to send Rocco and Steffi.
“No more antiquities right now. I just wanted to ask you about an American woman who checked in earlier this week. Sophie Smith. Pretty. Blonde. Young.”
Matteo didn’t need much time to sort through the possibilities. He always had his pulse on every element of the hotel’s health, including how many guests were registered, where they were from, and what kind of vacation they desired. But even if he hadn’t…Sophie Smith was obviously memorable.
“Yes. She’s staying two weeks, in one of the nicer suites.” He turned toward Declan, his eyes narrowed and thoughtful. “Have you already met her?”
“I have. I had to save her from Harry Wharton, who was trying to seduce her in the lobby the minute she got here, even before she’d registered.”
Matteo groaned softly. “Wharton is nothing if not predictable. She’s lucky you were nearby.” He smiled. “Or is she? Are you planning to seduce her instead?”
“Of course not.” But Declan’s frown felt too intense. He made an effort to relax his tight eyebrows. “I’m just curious. She seems…I’m not sure how to explain it. Her parts don’t match, somehow.”
“Don’t match what?”
“Each other.” Declan knew he was being too vague, but he was only just figuring it out. “Sometimes she seems quite suave, almost jaded, as if she were born with a platinum spoon in her mouth, and nothing impresses her. Then, a split second later, she seems awkward, naïve. As if she’s playacting. But I’m not sure whether the naiveté is the act, or the sophistication.”
“Playacting.” Matteo’s voice was suddenly somber. “You know, come to think of it, her reservation was originally in someone else’s name. Another American woman. It was adjusted at the last minute.”
He ran his hand through his hair. “Dios. You think she’s suspicious somehow? You think she might have something to do with the robberies?”
Declan was startled. He hadn’t even considered that. But now that Matteo reminded him…
A couple of thefts at luxury hotels had everyone on edge this summer. One in Paris, then another in Venice. The unwritten promise of a luxury resort to its guests was always freedom from care, an escape from pettiness, ugliness, and banality. It promised a safe sanctuary, to which they could bring their dreams, their children, their lovers…their jewels.
Matteo and Rocco were determined that the dei Fiori chain wouldn’t be touched. But then, their properties had been hit, too. Now, security was always on their minds. They’d even asked Declan to keep an eye on the groundskeepers, and to double check the backgrounds of anyone he hired.
“I doubt she has anything to do with that,” Declan said. “There’s actually something very sweet about her. She’s kind. Hell, she couldn’t even give Wharton the boot in the arse he so richly deserved.”
He smiled to himself. She hadn’t wanted to be compassionate—he could tell she’d decided to deflect all unwanted suitors with an airy indifference. But some human sympathy inside her had been too powerful to deny.
“She’s not a thief,” he said. “Whatever her story is, she’s not dangerous. Forget I brought it up, okay?”
Matteo didn’t look convinced. “Well, if the jewel thieves looked evil, like super villains or even slightly creepy, I suppose they’d have been caught by now. Maybe innocence is her disguise.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Declan felt himself frowning again. “You haven’t met her yet. But I have, and I’m telling you, if she’s a cat burglar I’m the Loch Ness Monster.”
A split second of silence stretched like warm elastic in the Mediterranean sun.
“Ahhh,” Matteo said, finally. Then he smiled and the knowing grin looked very Italian at that moment. It made Declan feel annoyingly Scottish-dour.
“You are not just curious about her. You like her. Bene. It’s been more than a month since Mariota—”
Matteo abruptly seemed to realize that was ground he shouldn’t tread. “Anyhow,” he said, correcting course, “it’s long past time you liked a woman who was not made of marble. And I take it this Sophie Smith is very much not made of marble?”
“Oh, shut up and go meet Helena,” Declan said, laughing in spite of himself. “Just because you and Rocco have been struck by cupid doesn’t mean we’re all looking to settle down.”
“Who said anything about settling down?” Matteo’s eyes sparkled. He was obviously enjoying himself way too much. “I just meant that, perhaps, if this Sophie Smith is acting suspiciously, you should keep an eye on her. As a favor to the De Luca family. To protect the hotel. Yes, you should keep a very close eye.”
“Ach.” Shaking his head, Declan turned and made his way back up the steps toward his shed. “Go. Some of us have work to do.”
End of Excerpt