Knight in shining armour… or avenging angel?
International business tycoon Luciano da Valenza stepped in to save the Linwood family’s failing wine business and swept the young, impressionable Kerry Linwood off her feet. Yet Kerry feared Luciano didn’t want her, but the wine empire she would inherit. Then money was embezzled from the business, and there was evidence enough to put Luciano in prison. Five years later, Luciano was back and out to clear his name. He was certain that he’d been framed by the Linwoods and he was planning to take everything that was theirs – beginning with Kerry. He had always loved her, and now he was more determined than ever to have her….
CRUSH barriers held back the baying media horde brandishing cameras and microphones outside the Royal Courts of Justice.
As Luciano da Valenza emerged, surrounded by his triumphant legal team, his new security men rushed to block those climbing the barriers in an effort to reach him. Standing six feet four tall with the lithe, powerful build of an athlete, Luciano dwarved his companions. For a split-second he stilled, stunning golden eyes brilliant in his lean, bronzed face, the only outward sign of the strong emotions gripping him.
He was free: no handcuffs on his wrists, no guards by his side, no prison van waiting to return him to a cell eight feet wide by ten feet deep. For the first time in five hellish years, the right to liberty and dignity was his again. But the moment was soured by the reality that nothing could bring those years back, or alter the harsh fact that the English legal system might have set aside his conviction as unsafe but had stopped short of declaring him innocent.
‘What will you do now?’ an Italian journalist shouted above the general mêlée.
‘I will fight on.’ Responding by instinct to a fellow countryman, Luciano was none-the-less amazed at the naivety of that question, for it was unthinkable to him that he might rest before his name was cleared and his enemies had paid the price for what he had endured.
‘Your immediate plans?’ The same paparazzo was quick to press his advantage.
A dangerous smile slashed Luciano’s lean, darkly handsome features. ‘A glass of 1925 Brunello Riserva and a woman.’
That declaration was met by a burst of appreciative laughter from those who understood enough Italian to translate that audacious declaration of intent.
On the sidelines, Luciano’s lawyer, Felix Carrington, wondered which of the many women who appeared to find his dynamic client irresistible would qualify for that ultimate accolade. Costanza, the sleek Italian brunette, who was surely the most devoted and discreet personal assistant in existence? Rochelle, the sexy blonde beauty, who had withdrawn her evidence on the grounds that she had been drunk and distraught when she had made her original statement? Or even Lesley Jennings, the fiercely intelligent and attractive solicitor in Felix’s own legal firm, whose determination to win Luciano’s release had become a crusade? More probably, Felix decided, a fresh face would capture the younger man’s interest: one of the glossy media or society females who had taken up his cause with such vigour.
Yet five years earlier, when Luciano da Valenza had been tried, found guilty and imprisoned, only a few lines in a local newspaper had reported the event. A foreign troubleshooter headhunted from Rome by the Linwoods, he had been better known in Italy as the up-and-coming aggressive young business blood that he was. But by slow degrees, Luciano’s plight had assumed a much more colourful guise.
In the aftermath of the original trial, Count Roberto Tessari, an Italian nobleman of enormous wealth and unblemished integrity, had come out of nowhere to engage Carrington and Carrington to supply a top-flight defence team on Luciano’s behalf. The older man had also secured Luciano’s assets against the fines imposed by his conviction by paying them out of his own pocket before pledging his bottomless bank account to the long, tough battle of appealing Luciano’s conviction and gaining his release.
In spite of Tessari’s painfully embarrassing efforts to keep his involvement a matter of total blanket confidentiality, someone somewhere had talked. When the rumours had begun, a prominent newspaper had printed a double-page spread on Luciano da Valenza. Their investigation of his background had helpfully delivered those elements beloved of the popular Press: secrecy, illegitimacy, suffering and poverty. At that timely moment, Luciano had then proved that he was indeed an unusual criminal. While recovering from a savage beating by fellow inmates, who resented the attention he was receiving, he had risked his own life to rescue an officer from a fire in the prison hospital. A television documentary questioning his guilt had followed and, if it had lingered a little too lovingly and often on the lady producer’s clear admiration for Luciano’s dark-angel good looks and heroic stature, certainly the programme had generated an amount of interest in his cause which had done him no harm.
When, eighteen months ago, Tessari had died after finally acknowledging Luciano as his son and in an apparent expiation of his guilty conscience had left him everything he possessed, Luciano had become a extremely rich man. Yet not once during the years of Luciano’s imprisonment had the noble count visited his son or even attempted direct communication with him. In addition, Felix had been forced to utilise very persuasive arguments to convince his proud and independent client that he could not afford to refuse that golden inheritance if he wanted his freedom.
‘Thank you for all that you have done,’ Luciano breathed with quiet sincerity as he took his leave of Felix Carrington with a firm handshake. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
A glass of wine and a woman? A meaningless soundbite. Who had he been trying to impress? Luciano asked himself as he swung with lithe grace into the waiting limousine. He no longer needed to play to the gallery to secure support. A grim smile set his wide, sensual mouth, the anger he concealed at what he had withstood still as fierce as it had ever been. It seemed as though all his life he had been fighting other people’s low expectations of him.
‘What’s the point of you working so hard at school? It won’t get you any place…You’re Stephanella da Valenza’s bastard brat and nobody’s ever going to let you forget that! Don’t draw attention to yourself, just be like the other boys,’ his late mother had urged him with frowning anxiety, struggling to comprehend a twelve-year-old hungry for so many things that she herself had neither wanted nor valued.
Then, as now, Luciano had travelled his own path. To act alone was not new to him. He knew that he would not savour the Brunello Riserva, that superb vintage wine from the Tuscan hills of his childhood, until he had settled several outstanding scores to his own satisfaction. Primarily, those scores centred on the Linwood family and their supporting players. As the only outsider and expendable, he had been set up as a fall guy. In return, he would bring down the chain of wine stores on which the Linwood fortunes had been built. In fact that process had kicked off over a year earlier. Of the Linwood circle, only Rochelle would escape unscathed. In recognition of Rochelle’s belated efforts to redress the wrong she had done, he was prepared to stamp her account more or less paid.