SILHOUETTED AGAINST THE moonlit sky, the huge house outside Naples looked as if it belonged in a gothic horror movie. All it lacked was the ubiquitous thunderstorm to set the scene as it already had bats flying around the turrets, Raffaele Manzini conceded with wry amusement as he climbed out of his car and his bodyguards clambered out of the car behind him.
‘Some place,’ Sal, the middle-aged head of Raffaele’s protection team, remarked, with the privilege of a man who had been responsible for Raffaele’s physical safety since he was a child. ‘I’m going to stick to you like glue tonight whether you like it or not. I don’t trust your great-grandfather. Back in the day, the word is he was a ruthless killer.’
‘Probably all smoke and mirrors.’ Raffaele laughed.
‘He treated your father badly. A man who casts his own grandson out of the family isn’t doing right by his own blood and I’d believe him capable of anything.’
Raffaele said nothing, knowing the older man well enough to know that he had always been a fervent believer in the strength and importance of family ties. But the concept of family was meaningless to Raffaele. His mother had suffered brain damage in an adolescent accident and in spite of her unpredictable rages, obsessional behaviour and wild impulses she had still been allowed to raise him, her only child. Not that she, a Spanish billionairess, had done any of the actual raising. Naturally not. Raffaele had been brought up by nannies, few of whom had endured his volatile mother’s employment for long. He had never known a hug, physical affection being something his mother had put on the ‘grounds for dismissal’ list. He had never known his father until he grew into a man. And he had nothing in common with him either.
To be fair, Raffaele had long known that he wasn’t quite normal. There was a giant black hole in him where other people had emotion. Very little touched him. Only business, profit and power revved his engines. And just as he knew that, he knew that all that had brought him to his great-grandfather’s doorstep was curiosity.
Aldo Manzini might be ninety-one, but he had retained his sinister reputation. Rumours of Mafia connections, corruption and killings, not to mention brutal business tactics, still clung to his name. Even though his son had died, Aldo had still cut his grandson, Tommaso, out of his life for defying him and he had never forgiven him, which made it all the stranger that he should have extended an invitation for Tommaso’s son, Raffaele, to visit him at his fortified estate.
And if Raffaele hadn’t been bored, he wouldn’t have come. It was that simple. Family ties had nothing whatsoever to do with Raffaele’s arrival. His heiress mother’s death from an epileptic seizure had left him wealthy beyond avarice at eighteen and his own business achievements since then had made him untouchable. On the international stage, he was an infinitely more powerful man than Aldo Manzini had ever been in his Italian home. He was feared, flattered and feted wherever he went. Needless to say, that got tedious.
Boredom set Raffaele’s teeth on edge. He had tried to combat it every way he knew how. The turnover of women in his bed had moved even faster. He had skydived, scaled mountains, deep-sea-dived, always searching to find what he needed to stop being bored. Because he knew how lucky he was to be born healthy and rich and to have the power to get just about anything he wanted. And at the age of twenty-eight, he had had it all: the beautiful women, the decadent parties, the travel, the ultimate of life’s experiences. And yet, he was still bored…
An ancient manservant ushered them into the creepy mansion. The giant hall rejoiced in the antiquated splendour of a bygone age, the very antithesis of what Raffaele liked but, for the first time in a very long time, Raffaele was not bored. A long wood-panelled corridor ornamented with a line of grim family portraits led into what the old man called the ‘master’s office’. Raffaele was surprised to register that he would have liked a moment or two to study his paternal ancestors but he suppressed that startling impulse, every skin cell in his very tall and powerful body firing as he saw the even older man seated behind the desk with an assistant hovering by his side. He had drawn hawkish features, but his dark eyes were still as keen as a raptor’s.
‘You’re very tall for a Manzini,’ Aldo remarked in Italian.
‘Must have caught the tall gene,’ Raffaele responded in the same language, which he spoke as fluently as he spoke half a dozen other languages.
‘Your mother was taller than your father. Couldn’t have abided that in a woman,’ Aldo admitted.
Raffaele shifted a broad shoulder clad in a casual cotton shirt. ‘Presumably you didn’t invite me here to get sentimental about my antecedents.’
‘Your hair’s too long as well,’ Aldo commented, unconcerned. ‘And you should have dressed for the occasion. Dismiss your bodyguard and I will dismiss mine. What I have to tell you is confidential.’
Raffaele angled his head at Sal, who frowned but backed out of the door again obediently, closely followed by Aldo’s companion.
‘Better,’ Aldo pronounced. ‘You can pour us a drink if you like.’ A gnarled hand indicated the drinks cabinet by the wall. ‘A brandy for me.’
Mouth quirking at the old man’s strength of character and imperious attitude, which defied the frail shell of a body trapped in a wheelchair, Raffaele crossed the room and it was one of those very rare occasions when he did as someone else told.
‘Do you see much of your father?’ Aldo enquired as his great-grandson set a brandy goblet down within his reach.
‘No. By the time I had access to him, I was an adult. I see him a couple of times a year,’ Raffaele responded carelessly.
‘Tommaso’s a disgrace to the Manzini family, as spineless as a jellyfish!’ Aldo proclaimed bitterly.
‘He’s happy,’ Raffaele replied with complete assurance. ‘And that, his small business and his family are all he wants out of life. We all have different dreams.’
‘I would hazard a guess that a white picket fence and a bunch of kids isn’t your dream,’ the old man murmured very drily.
‘It’s not, but I don’t begrudge my father his,’ Raffaele countered, his dark eyes a brilliant gold that flared in warning as he studied his great-grandfather, wanting the miserable old codger to get the message that while he might not be exactly close to his father, Tommaso, his father’s second wife or his three little half-sisters, he would protect both him and them from anyone who sought to harm them.
‘Let me bring you up to date on old history.’ Aldo leant back in his wheelchair.
A whiskey cradled in an elegant brown hand, Raffaele sprawled down in an armchair, hoping it wasn’t going to be a long story because he was already beginning to regret the impulse that had brought him.
‘When I was twenty-one I was engaged to Giulia Parisi. Our family businesses were competitors. Both our fathers wanted the marriage to take place but, make no mistake—’ Aldo lifted his bony chin to punctuate the point ‘—I was very much in love with her. The week before the wedding I discovered that she was sleeping with one of her cousins and was not the decent young woman I believed. I was young, hurt… I jilted her at the altar because I wanted to shame her the way she had shamed me.’
‘And?’ Raffaele pressed when the old man seemed to be drifting back into the past.
‘Her father was enraged by my disrespect and he changed his will. The Parisi business could never be bought or otherwise acquired by a Manzini. It could only pass through a marriage between the two families and the birth of a child.’
Raffaele rolled his eyes. ‘A bit short-sighted to say the least—’
‘That business is now one of the biggest technology companies in the world,’ Aldo informed him, having reached his punchline. ‘And if you do what I want you to do it will be yours—’
‘Which company?’ Raffaele prompted, his interest finally engaged as he ran through various names before Aldo nodded confirmation. ‘Seriously? And it could be mine? For the price of a wife and a kid?’ His lean bronzed features snapped taut with distaste. ‘As you guessed, not my style.’
‘Ever since Giulia, it has been my ambition to acquire that company. The question didn’t arise with my son’s generation because the Parisi clan had no daughters to target but by the time my grandson, Tommaso, was of age, there was a daughter called Lucia available.’
‘And my father blew his opportunity,’ Raffaele filled in. ‘He’s already told me that part of the story. You wanted him to marry Lucia but he was already in love with my mother and picked her instead.’
‘Great foresight there,’ Aldo quipped with a curled lip. ‘She only stayed married to him long enough to have you and then dumped him. How many stepfathers did you have?’
Raffaele shrugged. ‘Half a dozen. My father may not have been the sharpest tool in the box, but he was the best of a bad bunch.’