Gemma Cardone hurried down the hall toward the executive suite of Marinetti Shipyard, heart pounding and nerves snapping like a ship’s sails. Church bells chimed six times, the distant echo clear in the quiet Tuscan morning.
Since the day she’d come to work in Viareggio nine months ago, she’d relished her leisurely morning walk to her office. Even inside the old building, the tall narrow windows reminded her of the arched portals of the stone train tunnel along Cinque Terre, giving a teasing glimpse of endless sky, the Ligurian Sea and the rugged cliffs that crashed into the water.
In the ancient village of Manarolo where she had been born and raised, the old-world buildings scrambled up the steep rocky cliffs as if clinging to the stone face like colorful gems.
On the same rugged cliffs grew the most magnificent grapes used to make a wine found nowhere else.
It was small and remote and older than time. Everywhere there were steps and narrow lanes. Yet she missed it dreadfully at times, for there was a peace there she’d never found anywhere else.
It was just the opposite here in Viareggio. It was close to Cinque Terre by sea, yet a world apart with a festive carnival and scores of ships and industry and more tourists than she’d ever seen in a season.
This seaside coastal town stretched along the endless sandy beaches, meeting the water in a gentle slope. The architecture was pure art nouveau and the pulse of the town was upbeat.
Every day she looked forward to coming to work for Cesare Marinetti at his shipyard. But not today.
Just one week ago a tragic accident had taken the life of Cesare’s wife and landed him in the hospital. Marinetti Shipyard had been shut down ever since, in mourning for Signora Marinetti and out of respect for the family.
Gemma had been on pins and needles since the funeral, worried sick about the heart attack that had kept Cesare hospitalized. It was no small wonder that the employees wondered when Cesare would be able to resume control of his shipyard. Until then, who would manage it in his stead?
The answer had come in the wee hours of the morning.
“I do not have long to talk,” Cesare had rasped in a voice clearly laced with pain. “The doctors say I need heart bypass surgery, and I believe them.” His sigh was long and weary, like one resigned to his fate. “The shipyard will open today, but I will not return to work for weeks.”
“Of course,” she said, her heart heavy over what he’d be facing with surgery and recuperation while still burdened with grief over losing his wife. “Who are you placing in charge of Marinetti?”
A thick curse rumbled over the line. “My son is taking over the shipyard.”
No! Cesare had called in the son who’d turned his back on him five years ago? The one who never called, never visited because he was too busy playing the part of consummate playboy?
“I confessed all, Gemma, now I live to regret it. You must go to the office immediately and remove all the documents pertaining to my daughter and you,” he said. “Take them home with you and keep them hidden. I cannot let the truth be known yet, not at this point and especially not to Stefano.”
Of course, Cesare was right. If his secret was made public now, it would rock Marinetti Shipyard and cause his family more hurt. She didn’t want to guess what undue grief it would bring his daughter in her fragile condition.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take care of things.”
“Grazie! Be careful around Stefano and don’t let him know when you intend to travel to Milan.”
That warning played over and over in her mind as she hurried down the Promenade toward the shipyard. The bars, shops and cafÃ©s still slept, but it wouldn’t be long and the town would come awake. What other surprises would this day bring?
She hated to guess as she made her way toward the executive suite on the upper floor of Marinetti Shipyard. The heels on her Italian sandals tapped the wooden floor with an urgent beat that kept pace with her heart.
She simply couldn’t fail Cesare in this. Not now. Not after all they’d been through together.
The click of a door closing echoed up the stairwell just as she reached the end of the hall. She whipped around and went still as death, looking, listening.
Unease arched between her shoulder blades as a tense quiet hummed around her. She saw no one about. But a door had closed in the stairwell below. She was certain of it.
None of the office staff should be here yet. In fact there was no reason for any employee to come to work over an hour early. No good reason, that is.
It must be the security guard making his rounds. Yes, it must be.
Still, Gemma all but ran the last few meters to the paneled door of her office. She couldn’t get caught by anyone. That would raise questions she wasn’t prepared to answer, and she never had been able to tell a convincing lie.
She hurried into her small office painted cheery yellow and furnished with an efficient desk and chair, a quartet of padded chairs along the wall for guests, and a table arranged with a lamp and several magazines. Sunlight streamed through the window in a burst of welcome, but pausing to appreciate its beauty would have to wait.
She pushed into Cesare’s office and flipped the wall switch with a shaking finger. Before the soft light could chase the shadows to the dark corners of the paneled room, she was heading across the maroon and jade carpet toward the wall safe.
Despite the cool morning, sweat beaded her forehead and dampened her spine and palms. Her silk coral blouse clung to her breasts and her navy blue pencil skirt had ridden up her thighs from her uncharacteristic sprint. But she couldn’t take time to right her clothes, either.
An unsettling energy hummed in the air, as if a storm was moving in. Or trouble was brewing?
Please don’t let it be from within Marinetti.
They’d all been through enough. But she feared that’s just what would happen when Cesare’s son took over.
From what she’d overheard, Stefano Marinetti was ruthless in business and a lothario outside of it. Having seen him at the funeral, she didn’t doubt that rumor one bit!
Yes, he was praised for his rapier-quick decisions and ability to make millions. But he was an international playboy.
He hadn’t taken time to visit his parents in five long years. In her opinion, he could just stay away now.
Just recalling the latest headline splashed across the tabloids had her pursing her lips. Stefano’s superyacht business had skyrocketed while Marinetti Shipyard struggled from week to week to make payroll of late.
Cesare’s business rivals called him washed up. She knew the truth, but she couldn’t divulge where the fortune had gone.
She spun the dial on the safe with trembling fingers, the only sound in the room her pounding heart and the metered tick of the wall clock. Then she heard the heavy outside door snick open, but it was the masculine exchange of, “ciao,” echoing from the hall outside her office that nearly stopped her heart.
She pawed through the contents of the safe and removed the portfolio she needed with her heart in her throat, clinging to the tiny window of time afforded her as the two men outside lapsed into a rapid staccato of conversation. A quick look inside the dark safe proved the photos were stowed there as well.
She stuffed the lot of them inside her carryall, closed the wall safe and slipped from Cesare’s office into her own. Footsteps pounded in the hall, coming closer. Heavy, impatient strides.
Surely not a guard. She doubted he was a worker, either. No, in all likelihood, the man moments from bursting through the door was Cesare’s son.
Her heart raced as she eased onto her chair and tucked her carryall under her desk. She’d done it. Now all she had to do was don a professional air and appear to be dutifully busy.
The door swung open and a tall man strode inside, wearing an Armani suit that emphasized the width of his broad shoulders and fitted his long lean body to perfection. He stopped cold and cut her a quick impatient look, much the same expression he’d worn at his mother’s funeral.
Stefano Marinetti was a younger, more leonine version of Cesare. His wealth of coffee-brown hair had a sexy wave to it and his beautifully sculpted lips curved just enough to keep him from appearing cross.
Just like he’d done at the funeral, his discerning mocha eyes took their time caressing every inch of her until her skin tingled and her thighs trembled. Men had openly stared at her before, but never like this. Never with this open carnal hunger.
It was totally inappropriate behavior even for a flirtatious Italian. He wasn’t just undressing her with his hot gaze, he was getting under her skin and stroking her libido.
With effort, she broke eye contact and struggled to draw air deeply into her too tight lungs. Another mistake, for she inhaled his scent, an erotic spice that sank into her and left her giddy with want.
She hated this electric attraction to him, yet she was drawn to him all the same. It was maddening. Humiliating. Addictive.
Her heart rate trebled from the realization she’d have to work for this playboy until Cesare returned. She couldn’t do it. But she couldn’t not do it, either.
Her promise to Cesare echoed in her mind, but it was the memory of the gamine face of the little girl smiling up at her from her hospital bed that gave Gemma the strength to meet Stefano’s stare dead-on.
His presence dominated the room so completely she couldn’t have looked away again if she’d tried. She’d heard of imposing forces before, but she’d never been faced with one until now.
The tabloids had been right. His classic good looks rivaled the Roman gods. Contemplative. Intense. Sexy.
That was the unsettling energy she’d sensed before. This man was used to giving orders and having them obeyed immediately without question.
She could easily picture him as a Roman gladiator brazenly vanquishing his rivals. Or as a god lounging by a pool with a bevy of maidens at his beck and call.
Yes, his raw masculine beauty paled in comparison to the carnal energy that emanated from him. He was a businessman who oozed sensual charisma and he knew it. He flaunted it. He used it to his advantage, just as he was doing now to throw her totally off track.
Stefano was a dangerous predator here for one reasonâ€”to usurp Cesare. She’d do well to bear that in mind.
She forced a welcoming smile and struggled for a neutral tone. “Buongiorno, Signor Marinetti. May I personally extend my condolences on your mother’s untimely passing.”
He gave an impatient nod and scanned her office as if looking for something. “Where is Donna?”
“She retired nearly a year ago.”
His brows snapped together and the sculpted bow to his sensual mouth thinned. “When were you hired?”
“Nearly a year ago.”
“Interesting.” He treated her to another exacting perusal that left her flushed and feeling vulnerable and inadequate, which shouldn’t surprise her for she certainly wasn’t the type who’d appeal to this arrogant jet-setter. “You are?”
One devilishly black brow arched in a universally silent order that she expound on her role here.
She kept her smile in place and counted to twenty before appeasing his curiosity. “I am Cesare’s personal secretary.”
No emotion showed on his classically handsome face, but the expansive line of his shoulders snapped taut. “Are you in the habit of coming to work this early?”
“No,” she said honestly, for she was certain he’d discern a lie if she attempted to voice one now.
He was simply too observant as well as overwhelming to her senses. She’d sensed his dominanceâ€”no, his arroganceâ€” at his mother’s funeral.
He’d seemed emotionless then. No, that wasn’t true. He’d seemed angry, like Etna rumbling deep and threatening to spew and destroy all.
She’d never been more aware of a man as she’d been then. She’d thought it a fluke until he’d walked through the door now and took command of the relaxed offices.
He was staring at her with eyes that were hard and nearly impossible to tear her gaze from. But she sensed his silent command for her to finish her thought. His impatient command.
Stefano Marinetti was dangerous.
It took every ounce of fortitude she could summon forth to hold her serene smile when she felt anything but composed. “I knew there would be a surfeit of correspondence to address in regard to Cesare’s heart attack and tragic loss.”
He gave a curt nod as if accepting her excuse. “That is good that you’ve taken the initiative in this delicate and most tragic matter.”
She wouldn’t lie about this. “Actually Cesare asked me to draft letters to his close friends and longtime business associates.”
“Cesare phoned you, then?” he asked, his voice as casual as if they were discussing the weather.
Even if she was good at weaving tales, it was too late to lie now. “Last night.”
“He is on strict bed rest.”
“It was a brief call,” she said, absently twirling the ring on her finger then stopping when the action drew his attention. Did anything slip past him?”We talked no more than a few minutes.”
“Did my father tell you to report to him daily?” he said, and this time there was no mistaking the steel ringing in his voice.
“No,” she said, and then certain he’d not believe the truth, asked with as much cheek as she could inflect in her tone, “Should I?”
A ghost of a smile teased those masculine lips that undoubtedly knew how to kiss a woman senseless. “Does my father call you Gemma or Ms. Cardone?”
“Cesare prefers an informal working environment.” Something Stefano would know if he hadn’t turned his back on his papa and the business years ago.
His features looked carved from stone, leaving her to guess he didn’t like the fact that she and his papa were on a first name basis. Fine, she was here to do all she could to help Cesare, not to please Stefano Marinetti.
Anger streaked through her as she thought of how much Cesare had needed help over the past nine months. If he’d only called on his son then. And what of Stefano? How much heartache could have been avoided if he’d been an attentive son?
Was he even aware of the financial troubles plaguing Marinetti Shipyard? Surely he’d heard the rumors. He should have contacted his papa then. He, with his boasted billions, should have offered to help his father.
But no, he’d waited until Cesare was grieving and in ill health before slithering back.
For Cesare’s sake, she’d count the days until Stefano took his leave. But heavens, she suspected it would be a struggle to keep her temper and her dignity around this spoiled, arrogant man.
“Very well, Gemma,” he said, her name rolling off his tongue like a caress that was so inappropriate she blushed. “As my father and I agree on this, we will continue to operate on an informal basis. Alert the department managers that I expect them in my office at two o’clock for a company meeting.”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“Not at all.”
Stefano walked into the office and closed the door behind him with a firm click that signaled he wished privacy until then. Fine! She wanted the same.
She desperately needed it after the rush to remove Cesare’s documents followed by her first meeting with Stefano.
She dropped onto her chair, shaken and angry and so relieved that she’d have a moment’s peace. But how long would it last?
He was a handsome, virile man. A handsome, virile, arrogant man who was taking over and placing her in a very precarious position.
That’s what she needed to concentrate on. His unreasonable demands. And the fact that his father hadn’t trusted him with his deepest secret.
Oh, Cesare! She’d do anything for him. She’d done it already. But she’d do more.
Her unwanted attraction to Stefano had temporarily blind-sided her. Nothing more. She’d be better prepared the next time she was in his company.
“Scusi, Gemma,” he said, startling her with his nearness which came far too soon for her liking. “A moment, please.”
Never mind that her name rolled off his tongue like an endearment and feathered sensual awareness up her bare arms. So much for her vow to remain unaffected by him.