SERGIO TORRENTE walked into the Palazzo Azzarini for the first time in ten years.
A magnificent mansion in the Tuscan hills, the palazzo was as famous for its grand Palladian architecture as for its legendary Azzarini wine label, which had spawned a massive empire with vineyards all over the world. Sadly, recent financial reverses had taken their toll: the breathtaking collection of treasures that had once filled the house was gone and the grandeur had become shabby. But it belonged to Sergio now. All of it. Every stone, every inch of rich productive earth, and he was rich enough to turn the clock back and remedy the neglect.
He had regained his birthright; it should have been a moment of supreme triumph. Yet Sergio felt nothing. He had stopped feeling a long time ago. At first it had been a defence mechanism but it had soon become an engrained habit he nourished. He liked the clean, efficient structure of his existence. He did not suffer from emotional highs and lows. When he wanted something more, when he felt the need for a certain buzz to bring him alive, he got it out of sex or physical challenge. He had climbed sheer rock faces in blizzards, trekked through jungles in appalling conditions and engaged in extreme sports. He had not found fear. But he had not found anything he really cared about, either, he acknowledged grimly.
Sergio strolled through the echoing empty entrance hall at an unhurried pace. Once the palazzo had been a happy place and he had been a loving son, who took family affection, wealth and security for granted. But the fond memories had long since been wiped out by the nightmare that had followed. He now knew more than he had ever wanted to know about the depths of human greed. His strong, handsome features set in forbidding lines, he strolled out onto the rear terrace, which overlooked the gardens. The sound of footsteps turned his head. A woman was walking towards him.
Platinum-blonde hair rippled back from Grazia’s perfect face. The white slip dress clinging to her pouting nipples and outlining the mound at the junction of her thighs left little to the imagination: she was naked beneath the silk. Grazia had always known what appealed most to a man and it wasn’t conversation. He got the message: it was basic and it was instant.
‘Don’t throw me out.’ Her languorous turquoise eyes proffered an invitation that both teased and begged. ‘There’s nothing I won’t do for a second chance with you.’
Sergio raised a derisive ebony brow. ‘I don’t do second chances.’
‘Even if this time I offer you a free trial? No strings attached? I can say sorry with style.’ With a provocative look, Grazia folded fluidly down on her knees in front of him and reached for the clasp on his belt.
For a split second, Sergio was taut and then he vented an appreciative laugh. A consummate survivor, Grazia had the morals of a whore but at least she was honest about it. To the winner went the spoils. And without a doubt she was a prize many men would kill to possess, for she was beautiful, sexually adventurous and an aristocrat born and bred. He knew exactly what Grazia was, as once she had been his. A heartbeat later, however, when his bright prospects were destroyed, she had been his brother’s. Love on a budget had had zero appeal for Grazia; she went where the money was. And time had wrought dramatic changes, since Sergio was now a billionaire and the Azzarini vineyards were just one small part of his enterprises.
‘You’re my brother’s wife,’ he reminded her softly, angling his lean hips back to lounge indolently against the wall a tantalising few inches out of her reach, ‘and I don’t do adultery, cara mia.’
His mobile phone rang. ‘Excuse me,’ he murmured with perfect cool and he walked back indoors, just leaving her kneeling in sensual subservience on the tiles of the terrace.
The call was from his security chief, Renzo Catallone, in London. Sergio suppressed a sigh. Once a senior police officer, the older man took his job very seriously. Sergio had a valuable chess set on display in his London office and, a few weeks ago, he’d been startled to see that someone, in blatant disregard of the ‘Do Not Touch’ notice, had solved the most recent chess puzzle he had laid out on the board. Since then, every subsequent move Sergio had made had been matched.
‘Look, if it’s bothering you that much, hide a surveillance camera nearby,’ Sergio suggested.
‘This nonsense with the chessboard is bugging my whole team,’ Renzo confessed. ‘We’re determined to catch this joker out.’
‘What are we going to do with him when we catch him?’ Sergio enquired drily. ‘Charge him with challenging me to a game of chess?’
‘It’s more serious than you think,’ the older man countered. ‘That vestibule is in a private area right beside your office, yet someone is walking in and out of there whenever they like. It’s a dangerous breach of security. I checked the board this afternoon but I couldn’t tell if any of the pieces had been moved again.’