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       The Italian, p.1

           Lisa Marie Rice
 
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The Italian


  The Italian

  Lisa Marie Rice

  Stefano Leone is closing in on one of the most dangerous mobsters on earth. He’s surrounded by armed men, his life under constant threat. He’s not had time for sex in years, let alone love. A beautiful American woman, however, slips right under his guard, into his bed and his heart. But does she truly want Stefano? Or has she been sent to seduce him—or worse?

  Designer Jamie McIntyre is on a working vacation in Palermo, Sicily, soaking up the sunshine and the art, trying to contact a former law student of her grandfather’s. She’s thinking “nerd in a suit”. But Judge Stefano Leone is as far from a boring suit as possible. He’s also the toughest, sexiest man she’s ever met, in bed and out. There’s no resisting his commanding presence or his beautiful body. Jaime quickly falls under his mesmerizing spell.

  Until Stefano’s enemy strikes, dealing a devastatingly personal blow…and forcing Jaime to make an impossible choice.

  The Italian

  Lisa Marie Rice

  Chapter One

  “Magnificent,” Jamie McIntyre whispered in awe. The lion—all tawny grace and treachery—stared at her out of fierce amber eyes, bright yellow mane a nimbus of peril framing the open jaws and predatory gaze. Jamie circled slowly, heart pounding. The beast was enormous, easily five feet long from bared incisors to switching, tufted tail. Menace in a muscular package—and as dangerous and awe-inspiring now as it had been when it was created eight hundred years before.

  She’d seen the lion guarding the tomb of the legendary Emperor Frederick II hundreds of times in art books. But the reproductions hadn’t prepared her for the power and glory of the mosaic masterpiece glaring down at her from the vaulted ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, deep in the heart of the Norman Palace in Palermo, Italy. She’d come four thousand miles to draw him.

  Few tourists visited the chapel today, and she’d been left alone most of the afternoon. Her fingers flew over the textured pad, in a frenzy to finish before the light left the ancient high-chambered room, full of the echoes of majesty and violence over the centuries.

  By the time the white-hot sun no longer gilded the eastern wall of the room, she’d gotten her lion down on paper, every gorgeous inch of him.

  The heat was stifling. Had been so since she’d arrived a week ago. Oddly enough, for a New Englander, she didn’t mind the heat in the least. Nothing was air conditioned in this city but it didn’t matter. The heat was like a sensuous blanket. She’d been shedding clothes day by day since her arrival, until now she wore only a cotton sundress that allowed the few breezes in the city to cool her legs and barely there panties. The sundress was loose enough to make her feel naked when she ambled through the city’s narrow, fragrant streets.

  Palermo had once been an Arab city and the men retained a hyperawareness of women. In the evenings, once the ferocious heat of the day had started to dissipate, she took long, leisurely walks around the old town. It pleased her to walk amongst the dark-eyed men who silently watched her passing, and to know that, though no one could tell, she was nearly naked.

  Satisfied with the afternoon’s work, Jamie packed her supplies and walked down the high-arched corridor toward the exit. She descended the broad ceremonial staircase—whose shallow steps had been designed so horses could climb to the upper chambers—down into the shadowed cloisters.

  The guardian, used to seeing her every evening for the past week, smiled and bowed his head so respectfully she felt like a queen. She bade him a quiet “buonasera” and walked out into the palm-fringed square in front of the palace.

  She turned back one last time for a sight that never failed to thrill her. The dying sun painted the immense facade of the palace a luminous gold, which shimmered against the palm fronds. It was the nesting hour for birds. Thousands of swallows wheeled and cried in the red-gold sky.

  Jamie walked home slowly, stopping at a few shops to buy some caponata, the spicy-sweet eggplant dish she’d come to love, a loaf of crusty local bread and a bottle of white Corvo di Salaparuta wine. She would consume her dinner leisurely on the balcony of her third-floor apartment, watching the neighbors on the street below fight and make up and flirt and gossip, all at the highest possible volume. It was infinitely better than the insipid fare offered by the local TV stations.

  Reaching her apartment in the Via Costanza, Jamie turned the old-fashioned brass key and pushed open the heavy carved door. The entry was dark and smelled of old wood, lemon polish and the lavender sachets her eighty-year-old landlady had placed in all the drawers. Walking from room to room, she threw open the shutters and the big French doors leading out onto the balcony that ringed the apartment. The doors and windows would stay open until morning to capture the slightly cooler air of the night.

  She’d say this was her favorite time of the day, but then they were all her favorite times of day.

  The dawn that came slowly, gilding the tops of the church steeples and cupolas before filling the sky. Summer midday, when the heat was a living thing and everyone retreated behind dun-colored walls, leaving the city to Jamie and a few stray dogs. That moment in the late afternoon when the city suddenly awoke from its siesta as if from an enchantment, and came raucously alive in the space of a few minutes.

  Jamie sighed. These thoughts were getting her nowhere. She was avoiding what she had to do.

  It was the one bleak note in her otherwise perfect Sicilian working vacation. She eyed with loathing the neatly wrapped package sitting on the antique madia, under a dour portrait of her landlady’s grandmother, moustache and all.

  She hated that little package, the source of many futile hours wasted trying to deliver it to a man who was proving impossibly, frustratingly elusive. If it had been for anyone else but Gramps, she’d have given up days ago.

  Jamie poured herself a glass of the Corvo, holding the stemmed crystal up to the window. The fading light burnished the wine into liquid gold. It tasted like a concentrate of sun and joy. She sipped half a glass then drew a deep breath.

  She’d bearded one lion in his den. Now it was time to beard another.

  Stefano Leone.

  Just before leaving for Sicily, her grandfather had given her a small package to give to one of the former pupils of his summer course in international law at Harvard. Gramps tried to keep in contact with his best students. Stefano Leone had apparently been one of the very best.

  Jamie had met quite a few of Gramps’ students over the years. Invariably nerds while at school, they immediately morphed into tedious suits upon graduation. Meeting a former Harvard Law School graduate ranked right up there in desirability with shingles. But Gramps had asked her and she’d have walked over burning coals barefoot for him, so she’d been giving it her best shot.

  It turned out that Stefano Leone was the most mysterious man in Palermo.

  Gramps didn’t have the man’s address. He knew only that Stefano Leone had been transferred from Milan, his home city, to Palermo two years before.

  Stefano Leone was a lawyer. A judge, Gramps had said. His number wasn’t listed in the Palermo phone book. So she’d called the Palazzo di Giustizia, the courthouse, only to be given an endless runaround.

  With a feeling of foreboding, she picked up the sleek gunmetal-gray cordless phone that was so at odds with the shaky Louis XVI table it sat on.

  She’d dialed the number eight times now and knew it by heart. Jamie wasn’t even entirely certain she was looking for Stefano Leone in the right place, but she had no idea where else to look.

  “Pronto?” a guttural voice answered the phone on the other end. Jamie sighed. It was a different voice. Every day she’d spoken with someone different. Though each time it was a man with a thick Sicilian accent, worlds away from the Italian she’d learned at Middleb
ury from her elegant Tuscan professor. She barely recognized the words.

  “Hello,” she said in her slow, careful Italian. “I would like to speak with Stefano Leone, please.”

  “Attenda.” Wait. This was the usual routine. She’d be passed from voice to voice. Twice she’d been interrogated sharply, suspiciously. And she’d explained, as clearly as she could, that her name was Jamie, not James, and that yes, Jamie was a woman’s name. She’d spelled McIntyre out meticulously a dozen—

  Of course!

  Jamie could have slapped herself in the head. If Stefano Leone actually worked there—and no one had denied it, they’d just denied her access to him—then he wouldn’t recognize the name McIntyre. Gramps was her mother’s father.

  “Pronto.”

  She’d been passed on to someone else. Instead of repeating her usual refrain, she said, “I would like to speak to Stefano Leone on behalf of Professor Harlan Norris of Harvard University.”

  There was no response. The phone clicked and then clicked again. There was a faint buzz on the line, just enough to tell her that she hadn’t been disconnected. Another click and then yet another new voice came on the line.

  A powerful voice, completely different from the others.

  “Who is this?”

  She sat up. The voice spoke in English, a deep bass with a husky undertone. For some inexplicable reason, Jamie shivered.

  “Who is this?” the voice repeated.

  Well, since he spoke English, she was going to see if she could finally get the entire story out.

  “Hello, my name is Jamie McIntyre and I’m trying to contact Mr. Stefano Leone. I am the granddaughter of Professor Harlan Norris. He was Stefano Leone’s professor at Harvard about fifteen years ago. I’m in Palermo on a study vacation and my grandfather gave me a gift to give to Mr. Leone. All I want to do is give him this gift. If you could please connect me with—”

  “I am Stefano Leone,” the deep voice said.

  “Oh.” Jamie blinked. The man didn’t sound like any of Gramps’ other students. He didn’t sound nerdy and he didn’t sound like a suit. He sounded like God. “All right, Mr. Leone. If you would just be so kind as to tell me where I could leave this package for you, I’ll—”

  “Where are you staying in Palermo?” he interrupted, as if she hadn’t spoken.

  “Ahmm…” She hesitated a moment then sighed. Gramps would never have asked her to look up a rapist or a serial killer. “Via Costanza 24. It’s—”

  “I know where it is. What floor?”

  This time her hesitation was longer. “Third.”

  “What name is on the bell?”

  This was getting ridiculous. “Look, Mr. Leone, all I want is to—”

  “What name is on the bell?” The voice was low, almost soft, but steel glittered beneath the tones.

  She gave up. “Landi.”

  “In half an hour, three men will come for you. They are police officers. Their names are Buzzanca, Bonifacio and Della Torre. They will show you identification. You will verify that they are who they say they are and then you will follow them.”

  Follow? “Now listen to me, Mr. Leone,” Jamie began hotly, “I fail to understand why—”

  A loud buzz sounded in her ear. He’d hung up.

  He’d hung up on her!

  Well…damn. Jamie stared at the receiver in consternation. Somewhere between Harvard and life, could someone turn crazy?

  Half an hour, he’d said. It was insane, but there was something about that voice that told her if he said half an hour, he meant it.

  With a last longing look at the caponata, Jamie hastily cut a slice of bread, topped it with goat cheese and washed it down with the last of the wine.

  At college, she’d had to share a bathroom and had mastered the art of the quick scrub and shampoo. Though it would cool down later in the evening, it was still hot and she couldn’t bear the idea of too many clothes next to her skin. She donned a silk shell and lightweight cotton pants.

  Twenty-nine minutes after the phone call, her doorbell rang. She peered through the peephole.

  Three men stood outside her door. They were dressed in military uniforms and were heavily armed.

  Jamie hesitated a moment.

  Gramps, I hope you know what you’re doing. With that silent invocation, she opened the door.

  The men were tough-looking in camouflage and commando berets. The toughest-looking of the lot stepped forward. “Signorina Maccatiro?”

  Not quite, she thought. But close enough.

  “Yes,” she replied.

  As if on command, the three men dug into their pockets and produced three police shields, each with the five-pointed star of the Italian Republic on top. Buzzanca, Bonifacio and Della Torre, just as Stefano Leone had said. Two were brigadieri and the one who had spoken was a maresciallo. His name was Buzzanca. “Please follow us,” he said.

  Jamie didn’t have the faintest idea what the pecking order in the Italian police was, but the maresciallo looked like the leader so she addressed him.

  “Can you tell me where we’re going?”

  “No.”

  Jamie stood still a moment, pondering her next move. The policemen were silent, as if waiting to see what she would do.

  “All right.” With a sigh of surrender, Jamie picked up the package Gramps had given her and her purse. She faced the three men. “I’m ready. Let’s get this over with. Though you can tell Mr. Leone that I don’t appreciate this kind of treatment.”

  To her utter astonishment, instead of heading for the stairs, Maresciallo Buzzanca plucked her purse from her hand, opened it and started rifling through it.

  “Hey!” she cried, incensed. “How dare you—” She stopped. He’d already finished his search. It had been brief, thorough and impersonal. He held her purse out to her and she snatched it back. He’d kept her cellphone, pocketing it, staring coldly when she gasped in a breath of outrage. Then the maresciallo took the package out of her hands, shook it and started picking at the wrapping.

  Jamie’s jaw dropped. She had designed the wrapping paper herself for Gramps. Silver books flying across a dark-blue background. She drew in a deep breath and barely restrained herself from slapping the man’s hands. He had a very serious-looking short-barreled machine gun hanging from a sling, and a big black pistol in a holster at his hip, otherwise she would have.

  “You listen to me, you—you—”

  Inside was a book. The maresciallo examined it, rifled through the pages then wrapped the package again, even matching up the scotch tape. He handed it back to her and though she wanted to berate the man for messing up the wrapping, it was in nearly pristine shape, so she shut up.

  Without a word, the maresciallo turned and began walking. The two other police officers looked at her expectantly. With a sigh, she followed the leader and they brought up the rear.

  Jamie had a bad moment when she saw they expected her to get into a car. A big one, with smoked glass hiding the passengers from view. Granted, it had Polizia di Stato stenciled in white on the side. Still, visions from every gangster movie she’d ever seen filled her head. In every single one of those movies, getting into a car with dangerous-looking armed men had been a bad idea.

  She stopped at the open door on the passenger side, one hand on the roof of the car. Her heart was pounding. “Where are you taking me?” she asked quietly.

  “Dal giudice,” was the reply. To the judge.

  Jamie got inside.

  The trip was relatively short but the route they took was so complex, she quickly lost her sense of direction. When the car finally stopped, she had no idea where she was. The maresciallo got out, circled the car and politely held her door open for her. They’d passed through security gates and had driven around a tall, marble-faced building, parking in an asphalted area in the back. An armed guard stood watch outside.

  The guard opened the door for her as she approached the building.

  The day was still warm, but th
ere was something about the bleakness of the building, the silent armed men, the utter quiet that made her shiver. She’d been propelled forward by her sense of duty to her grandfather but she was very aware of the fact that if these men wanted to force her to do something, she’d be helpless to stop them.

  Jamie stepped hesitantly over the threshold. Inside it was dim and airless. Her skin prickled with foreboding. Another armed guard beckoned her over to a metal detector. She walked through and was briskly, impersonally frisked.

  The guard pointed to the open doors of an elevator and two more armed guards followed her in. They rose six floors and exited onto a long, silent corridor. It was lit only by a few low-wattage bulbs and smelled of leather and paper and men. As they walked along the corridor, the boots of the guards echoed loudly. They stopped and one of the guards pointed to a closed door. She stepped in front of it and raised her arm. The guard nodded and she knocked.

  “Avanti!” a voice immediately called. It was the voice she’d heard on the phone.

  So she’d finally found Stefano Leone.

  Jamie opened the door and stepped into the silent, air-conditioned room.

  She barely noticed as one of the men closed the door quietly behind her. Barely noticed the plain decor or the bookshelves laden with books, rising up to the high ceiling, the top shelves lost in the gloom.

  All her attention was riveted on the man behind the large wooden desk. He was sitting, studying some documents on the table.

  At first all she could see were his hands, visible in the cone of light thrown by the lamp on his desk. Extraordinary hands. Large and broad and powerful, they were the hands of a fighter, not a judge.

  One of those strong hands reached out and switched on another light and Jamie stepped back, eyes widening.

  The man raised his head. “Ms. McIntyre?”

  She nodded, her throat tight.

  “I understand you have something for me?”

  The deep voice had a hypnotic effect on her. She nodded again. She couldn’t speak.

  “Then you must come closer.”

 
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