Siren Sweetly Singing

Siren Sweetly Singing by Alexandra Marell

Siren Sweetly Singing
by Alexandra Marell

An Island Of Sorellina Romance, Book 1
Contemporary Romance
Format: eBook
Length: 70,000/Novel
Released: Dec 2016

Come to the beautiful Italian island of Sorellina – where the magic will never let you go…
Fresh out of rehab and with his singing career in tatters, Stefano Denaro is at the most private of the Denaro family homes, Villa Cristina, determined to straighten out his life and get back on the stage. There, he meets a mysterious woman who seems equally determined to make him forget his vows to clean up his act. Alina is a siren with a secret, she can’t sing. Having failed to take a single soul with her terrible voice, she’s been given an ultimatum. Now human and terrified, she must find and harvest a pure male soul to ensure her return to the sea. And then she hears Stefano Denaro declaring he doesn’t drink or smoke, is celibate, and loves early nights… Grab his soul and be back in the sea to sing with the morning chorus, that’s her plan. But this is Sorellina, where magic is always in the air and love is never far behind…

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Read An Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

Island of Sorellina – Villa Cristina

There was a naked woman in the garden.

What the hell?

Stefano Denaro crossed the kitchen to the glass doors, where he could swear he’d just seen a fleeting impression of pale, female flesh flash past. It wouldn’t be the first time. He’d attended enough wild parties ending with everyone throwing off their clothes and jumping into the pool. But not here. Not at Villa Cristina, the most private of the Denaro family homes. A place he’d come to get away from all that madness.

A quick sniff of his coffee mug assured him he was still on track. No more whisky to greet the rising sun. Sober, and clean for three months now so no hallucinations. Frowning, he dropped the curtain and reached for the door handle.

A tourist out for a skinny-dip in the private cove below the villa? That she hadn’t bothered to dress before leaving definitely warranted further investigation.

A thief perhaps? Cautiously, he stepped out into the brightening day, breathing in the heady scents of oleander and the lingering perfume of night jasmine. He’d seen some crazy things in his time, but a naked cat burglar? Definitely a first.

Splintered hues of orange and red danced across the ever-moving sea on a morning so quiet, he could hear the gentle rustling of the umbrella pines lining the rocky mountain slopes above the villa. The gurgle and splash of the fountains in the formal villa gardens beyond the terrace. The topiaries and flower beds, the shrubs and ancient statues were all in the process of being renovated by the gifted young garden designer found by his brother Dario to breathe new life into Villa Cristina.

A strangely enigmatic woman, granted, with the same name as the villa and more than a few odd habits. But to Stefano’s knowledge, she never walked about the gardens naked. He made a mental note to have a word with her husband, Bernardo. An ex military man, now in charge of on-site security, a precaution that had been woefully lacking in Nonno Giuseppe’s day.

He paused, taking in the view. How had he never noticed the beauty of this place?

A light breeze whipped the first of the falling leaves into scurrying circles. On the patio table, another page of yesterday’s forgotten newspaper caught the gusts and flew into the air.

No sign of any woman, naked or otherwise.

A sheet of newsprint blowing past the window? Or an overactive imagination conjuring women out of thin air? Months of self-enforced celibacy and his desperate determination to prove to paparazzi and family alike that he’d given up his wild ways had obviously driven him over the edge.

Shaking his head, he gathered up the errant newspaper before the gardener saw the mess, grimacing at the photograph on page seven of a dark-haired man in an expensive suit, lying sprawled at the foot of a stage, a group of shocked fans staring incredulously.

That photograph seemed doomed to follow him around for the rest of his life.

After his spectacular fall from the stage at the Helland Arena, we follow Stefano Denaro, former member of the crossover popera group, Angelus from heady rise to stardom to the depths of rehab and then to the Island of Sorellina where he swears that this time, he will get his life under control.

Vultures. He crumpled the sheet in his fist and stuffed it into the kitchen trashcan. Three months, without so much as a sniff at alcohol, not a hint of a woman in his bed or otherwise and what did he get for it? A stampeding herd of paparazzi following his every move, waiting for the moment he fell. Well, he wouldn’t give them that satisfaction. Whether his voice returned or not, he was back. If he couldn’t sing, he’d return to his other love, art and jewellery design and take his place in the Denaro jewellery and gemstone empire.

With an expert eye, he perused the glowing screen of the laptop sitting on the kitchen table. Ideas for a new line of paua-shell pieces, rings, pendants, bracelets and earrings he hoped to present to the Denaro design team when they deigned to notice his efforts.

The designs were good, even if he said so himself. No problem with the quality, only in proving himself after a lifetime of carrying the bad boy label. Playboy, womaniser, addict, he’d earned each title with honours and relished that dizzying fall into oblivion.

At first.

With a heavy sigh, he hit save and closed down the laptop lid. Tuesday, so Mariella the housekeeper would arrive at eight o’clock to give the villa a once-over and throw him the disapproving glances she kept especially for him. She’d never liked the cheeky young lad who’d trailed mud over her newly-washed floors and she’d disapproved even more of the man who arrived with a different woman in tow to party his way across the island and gamble in the Denaro Casino on the seafront.

In the master suite he’d occupied for the past few weeks, he grabbed a beach towel from the stack in the bathroom and changed from sweats to swim-shorts. Time for the second ordeal of the day, the first being to haul himself from bed at six in the morning. The second, taking a morning swim while pretending the paparazzi weren’t out there in hired boats, waiting for him to be carried off by a sea monster or a freak wave.

His idea of hell, undoubtedly, but he would admit the structured routine suggested by the expensive rehab clinic had helped in his first faltering steps on the road to recovery.

So much to prove. To his family, to the world and to himself. After his swim maybe he’d swing by the casino and spend an hour with the concert grand. Another talent he’d neglected for too long.

His last chance and he knew it. Along with his art, the music would always be a part of him. He stopped at the bedroom door, taking in a few calming breaths. The thought of never singing again, of never feeling the elation of a note pitched just right, a harmony that touched the soul, sent him into a tailspin of panic. It was a part of him he missed more than he cared to admit.

“By Christmas I’ll be performing again and my designs will be in production.”

He said it to the birds chattering their morning greetings. To the ghost of the naked woman he may or may not have seen. To the trees and scrubby rosemary bushes clinging to the stone steps leading down the private cove. And he mouthed it silently to the paparazzi bobbing in their hired boats, cameras at the ready.

By Christmas he would not only be singing, but the Stefano jewellery line would be approved by the design board and the scouts would be out, scouring the world for the perfect and most exclusive shells to bring his vision to life. He swung an extra swagger in his step.

Back in the land of the living with a purpose and something to look forward to. An amazing feeling.

* * * *

Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea

I am the sound of the sea. The keeper of men’s souls. I am pleasures untold.

Haunting and ethereal, the song threaded its way across the bay, searching and probing. Feeling and testing the air for souls ripe for surrender. The lone male, out for a night of fishing under the Neapolitan stars stood no chance. Voices so painfully beautiful, he threw down his fishing rod and quickly altered course.

No man could resist and he would be no exception.

The Song Mistress smiled, her exquisite features marred only by the merest hint of sharpened teeth flashing through perfect lips. The cadence rose, luring the man to his doom. Arms outstretched, the Sirens beckoned him to join them for all eternity.

With a lift of her elegant hand, the Song Mistress brought in the backing chorus, the less experienced Sirens yet to prove their worth in a solo. Now the man would lose control and leap from his vessel to swim with all haste towards the throng. With a growing sense of satisfaction, she watched the man fling himself into the sea, abandoned to the song and then…

And then suddenly he turned, arms flailing in frantic circles, to swim with superhuman speed back to his boat. Hauling himself into the vessel, he picked up the oars and rowed as if chased by all the demons of hell to the safety of the shore.

With an agitated flick of her baton, the Song Mistress brought the singing to an abrupt halt.

Ten pairs of luminous eyes stared back in wary expectation. At the back, a nervous giggle broke the silence. They all knew exactly what was coming next.

“Someone is singing off-key. Again!” The Song Mistress leaned forward, her laser-like stare piercing them each in turn. She gave a weary sigh. “Alina, come forward. The rest of you go and comb out your hair and get some rest.”

Alina shrank farther onto her rock, hoping she’d misheard and it wasn’t her name being called for the tenth time in as many songs. Gracefully, her surrogate sisters drifted away to leave her squirming under the Song Mistress’s unrelenting glare.

“What am I to do with you, Alina?”

Alina swallowed, licking the salt from her lips. There was, she noted with relief, a hint of pity in the Song Mistress’s eyes. Hopefully she and the Siren Council would see how hard she tried, how much she wanted this.

“Give me another chance?” The southerly winds lifted her knee-length tresses, teasing the hair into billowing waves that offered tantalising glimpses of her perfect, naked body. A body capable of driving a man to distraction. A female form that should have a voice to match had not a cruel twist of fate produced the first Siren in history who couldn’t hold a tune.

“I do believe you used up all your chances back in the first millennium. And in that time you have failed to show one iota of talent for the Song.” The Song Mistress raised a hand bearing elongated talons, warning her not to interrupt. Alina eyed them with longing. She had yet to be allowed to sharpen her teeth to points that would pierce a man’s heart with one bite, let alone be honoured with the coveted talons of destiny that could tear out a man’s soul with a single slash.

Biting back the envy, she slid her own hands, still bearing the neatly manicured nails she’d worn in life, behind her back.

“I look on you as a one of my own kin, Alina.” The Song Mistress’s eyes gentled, her coral-coloured hair floated like a luminous veil. “And I still remember the day you offered yourself to the waves. Still feel your grief at the wrong done to you by your husband. I myself tasted your desire for revenge against all men and gathered you up to become one of us. But Alina, the Song is the very fabric of our being. What use is a Siren without the power of thrall?”

No use at all. No need to say it aloud.

“I will try harder. Take lessons. It’s just that I sensed the man had a child, a living wife awaiting him at home and I thought…”

“That we should take someone more deserving? A murderer perhaps, who just happened to be out fishing tonight?” The Song Mistress clucked her tongue. “Child that is not how this works. Saints and sinners alike are welcome at our dining table.”

Alina swallowed down the growing sense of panic, dropping to her knees for greater effect. The creature’s taste for virtuous souls was well known. “I can do this. No one hates men as I do. My bastard husband tainted me for all time and I vow to revenge myself against all men. Please give me another chance. I’ll swim out and persuade him to return. I’ll do anything.”

The Song Mistress quirked a perfect eyebrow. “Anything? You say you hate all men, Alina. And yes, some men by lack of physical or mental virtue are easy to hate. But as you just proved, what of the others? The sex-gods who will nevertheless put a woman’s pleasure before his own? Those rare creatures who can tell the difference between a Louboutin pump and a Jimmy Choo sandal? Those who jump from helicopters to deliver chocolates to a woman’s hotel room in the dead of night and then remain to watch a chick-flick with not one word of complaint? What of those? Could you truly hate such virtuous creatures?”

“I could. I promise you, I could.” Alina’s voice trailed away. There truly existed men who did not rut for the sole purpose of producing an heir? Of course there did. She knew that. Her misfortune was to never have met such a man. Had that been so, she would never have flung herself from that cliff in despair.

And for that she wanted to punish them all.

Well, most of them.

“It is not only for the good of the choir, Child.” The Song Mistress’s face turned serious. “You know the fate of a Siren when men resist her song?”

A spark of panic weakened Alina’s knees. “They perish? The stories are true?” Of course she knew the lore. A Siren without the power of thrall was of no use to anyone.

“And yet, my child, I have protected you from that fate for two thousand years.” The Song Mistress frowned. “Neptune himself has noticed my leniency. You are fortunate, Alina that he and I are…” She paused, a secret smile curving her perfect lips. “He and I are old friends and as such, he also acknowledges your willingness to succeed and has graciously granted you mercy.”

“Oh, thank you.” Alina flung herself face down in a froth of unruly tresses, fists tightly clenched to contain the tremors caused by the mere mention of the great sea god, Neptune.

“Decorum, my child.” A hint of impatience coloured the Song Mistress’s voice. “Oh, do get up. Alina, you can be so tiresome. Neptune has spared you on one condition. You must take the ultimate test.”

“The ultimate test?” Alina’s flagging spirits deserted her altogether. She raised her head so sharply, the world spun and she clutched at a nearby rock to stop herself from falling. “Become human again? Oh, no. Please don’t make me do that. I couldn’t bear to go through that again.”

“It’s the only way, my beloved child. You cannot walk the earth as an immortal and as things stand, there remains too much pity, too much softness in your heart to ever develop the voice of a Siren.” The Song Mistress raised her hands already casting the glamour that would thrust her errant pupil back into the world of men with all their false promises and lies.

“Alina, this is your last chance to prove you have what it takes to become a harvester of souls. That your heart has truly hardened, no matter who the man, no matter what his sob-story.”

Don’t panic. Alina chanted the words over and over as the Song Mistress drifted from sight. All right, she couldn’t stop this so she would make a quick trip to the nearest gambling den, where she’d be sure to find some man already on his way to hell and drunk enough to ignore the fact that she sang like a disgruntled crow. Grab the soul, which the man would give up with little protest, and then back in the sisterhood before sundown.

“No, Alina. That will not do. That will not do at all.” The Song Mistress spoke in her head, now, laying down the rules of the task that would gift her another interminable human lifetime should she fail. “Find me a pure soul. That is the true test. A good man and then corrupt him just a little. Make your mark and bring him to me. I haven’t tasted a pure soul in eons and I have such a yearning for a newly-fallen male.”

The Song Mistress’s voice faded leaving only the lingering hint of challenge in the words. Already Alina felt her heart softening, the ice melting. No longer a Siren’s heart, it was becoming horribly and vulnerably human again.

After two thousand years of feigning a complete indifference to the suffering of others, she would now care again as she had in life. Look with genuine pity on others and their plight. No matter how much humans hated, they still managed to care.

Her greatest failing was that she had cared too much.

Already her limbs felt too heavy to lift, her hair was shortening to a manageable waist-length. Still naked, except for the iridescent shell necklace nestling at her throat and the bracelet circling her wrist, unfamiliar waves caught and tossed her to the shore of a small cove, rolling her onto the damp sand to lie staring up at the brightening sky. Now the familiar tang of salt competed with the scent of rosemary and pine, the lingering perfume of smoke and flowers.

Alina flipped upright, dashing away the wet sand sticking to her arms and legs, matting her hair into strings. Despite the pretty words, the Song Mistress had never liked her. All she cared about were her soul-quotas. She’d tutored the top song-team for ten millennia before crossing paths with Alina and had spent the last two thousand years plotting to rid herself of the problem child.

Alina stood and took a wobbly, experimental step. The transformation to human was not absolute. She still retained a shadow of her heightened Siren senses. Senses now at war with the confusion of human emotion.

“I’ll be back,” she vowed to no one in particular. Being a Siren had taught her persistence, if nothing else. Her human voice echoed around the small cove, a sound she hadn’t heard in two thousand years. “I’ll show you all how a Siren gets her man. How she crushes his spirit and steals his very essence.”

She would not let this rapidly-warming human heart sway her from that goal.

Above her rose a cliff, very similar to the one from which she’d flung herself on that fateful night she returned to find her wretch of a husband, Senator Lucius Pracius in the arms of her best friend. Or rather, being extremely clumsy in life, the cliff she’d slipped and fallen from while running whimpering from the horrible sight.

On the edge of the cliff stood a dwelling reminiscent of the beautiful villa her husband took her to as a young bride. All marble terraces and fountains, columns and flowing silks. Life had been good back then, until he revealed himself for the liar he was.

The dwelling might provide clothing, if she could sneak inside without being seen. Only on the nudist beaches were mortals at liberty to walk naked as Mother Nature intended. Anywhere else and she would find herself appropriated and incarcerated along with the other dregs of humanity.

She would be unlikely to find a pure soul in a prison cell.

Keeping low, she took another tentative step, questions crowding her mind. How long would it take to re-accustom herself to this new human shell? And would she make it up those steep cliff steps without falling off and snuffing out her pathetic life once and for all? A frightened little mouse, her husband had called her. He’d delighted in finding ever more demeaning names with which to shame her. In truth, her meekness had been her downfall. Her own fault for choosing to ignore the signs of his infidelity instead of rising like a lioness to protect what was hers.

Sharp stones stung her feet as she climbed. Oh Jupiter, how frail these human bodies were. At the top stood an ancient iron gate, unlocked, thank the gods. Holding the bars, she peered through at the faded splendour of the villa garden. As a Siren, nudity had never given her pause, but now she found herself huddling into her hair, crossing her arms over her breasts in an effort to cover her vulnerability.

A pitiful state.

Quickly, she crossed the terrace and crouched low beneath one of the villa windows. Was this a permanent dwelling, or one of the holiday homes littering the coast? This late in the season it might already be locked up. A quick peek revealed the shadow of a man in what might be a place of food preparation. She ducked down out of sight at the sharp turn of his head. Had he seen her? Scurrying to the safety of an avenue of clipped conifers, she slid behind the trees and watched the door open. A dark head leaned out to peruse the terrace.

After a quick scan of the garden, the man shrugged, stepped out and stooped to gather up the scattered leaves of paper littering the marble slabs. Alina took in a shaky breath, willing him to return to the villa. He did so, but quickly reappeared, clad only in a pair of shorts and footwear, a towel slung over his shoulder. He stood for a moment, taking a deep appreciative sniff of the early morning air and then turned to lock the door.

Alina reached out with frustratingly limited senses and saw only a tall, black-haired man with pleasing features walking with determined strides to his morning swim. She’d lost the ability to read souls. Looking closer, she caught the slight hesitation at the fence marking the cliff-edge. The man closed his eyes and waited for a moment before moving toward the gate.

Was he servant or master of this magnificent dwelling? The rich people she’d played hostess to in life, were not the best examples of the pure in heart. While he swam, she might have time to break into the house and avail herself of suitable clothing. She paused to catch another breath, a hand on her wildly beating heart.

Silently, she urged him to pass through the gate, wishing only to garb herself and set about finding the purest of souls to beguile and seduce with the sound of her voice. There must exist somewhere on this island, a man not only in possession of a pure soul, but who was also tone-deaf. Someone who would be so enthralled by the message he’d happily ignore the delivery.

She had only to remain deaf to his pleas for mercy, ensnare him with her voice, urge him to commit a mortal sin or two and then harvest his soul. Logically, it should be that simple.

The Song Mistress would see in an instant, the extent of her efforts and throw the welcome party of the millennium for her return.

Satisfied the coast was clear, she left the shelter of the trees and made for the open window at the back of the house.

* * * *

There they were. Damn those paparazzi to hell. Couldn’t they leave him in peace for five minutes?

The small boats bobbing on the waves made no attempt to hide. Long lenses at the ready, they’d arrived two days after him, shadowing him around the island like a plague of flies. He’d given them their photo opportunities, smiled until his face cracked. Let the world see him indulging in healthy pursuits. An early-morning swim. A daily jog to the temple ruins. And now after all his efforts, the circulating rumours said he was losing it again and they were determined to catch him in the act.

Wherever he went, they found him.

He should stomp back to the villa and grab Nonno Giuseppe’s old shotgun. Give the paps a picture that would set fire to their front pages.

“Hey, Stefano.” One of the journalists raised his loud-hailer. “Word has it they’ve replaced you. Is Angelus looking for a new group member?”

“You were seen drinking in the casino. Roaring drunk with that socialite on your arm. Any truth in that?”

“The Sing For Africa Charity Gala. Is it true your offer to sing was refused?”

He forced a smile onto his face, hoping the popping cameras captured a man back at the helm of life and then that miraculously all the boats would sink and drown the scum who called themselves journalists. No more meltdowns or rants at the photographers. He’d said a firm goodbye to all that craziness. With a cheery wave, he tossed the towel back over his shoulder and turned for the steps.

Don’t let them see you riled. That’s what they want.

At the turn of the steps and out of their sight he let rip the curses and thumped the rock-face for good measure. The pain at least distracted him from those assholes who loved nothing more than a front row in the circus that was his life.

Keep it together, Stefano. You’re doing great. Don’t let them get to you.

Nothing would stand in the way of resurrecting his career. A career that died a death the night he walked drunk onto that stage and stumbled his way through half the repertoire before falling from the edge into the arms of his incredulous fans. The press had a field day with that one.

Seven in the morning had never been too early for a stiff drink. He let himself in by the kitchen doors, resisting the urge to go straight to the ancient cabinet that magically produced a glittering array of spirits and hard liquor to the tinny clang of Turne a Surriento. Mariella the housekeeper had offered to pour the lot down the drain. Let it stay, he told her as a testament to his new resolve to remain sober for long enough to get back on that stage and find out if he still had the voice. A voice he hadn’t heard in six months of waking in the night terrified by dreams of a man opening his mouth and hearing nothing but silence.

Please don’t let it be gone forever. His heart clenched. He couldn’t stand that. With luck it was hiding, deep inside, waiting for him to gather enough courage to try again.

The old housekeeper had pronounced he wouldn’t last five minutes and given him one of those looks that dared him to contradict her. The old Stefano would have gone straight to the cabinet, poured himself a whisky in a half-pint mug and toasted her with a cheeky grin.

The new, improved Stefano went straight to the kitchen for a coffee. Only a few more days of Mariella’s jibes before she decamped to Sorrento to visit her sister. He’d turned on all of his charm to get her to agree to that.

Maybe a celebrity trip to some disaster zone was in order? Or a visit to one of the charities sponsored by the family firm. With the Denaro billions at his back and a few smiling orphans on his hip, he’d surely melt the hearts of the toughest journalist?

No. Reckless he might be, but the one thing they couldn’t accuse him of was using his name and his fame to prop up his ego. While he waited for the kettle to boil, he flicked through his address book for the number of the London homeless shelter he’d sponsored in one of his more sober moments. If the voice ever returned, he’d perform a charity concert for their benefit alone. The Africa charity committee didn’t want him to sing, well that was their loss.

The kettle switched off with an audible click, steam misting the window. Somewhere in one of the downstairs guestrooms he heard a muffled thump followed by a splintering crash, like a glass ornament hitting the marble floor. Hand on the kettle, he stilled and listened.

The villa ghost up to her old tricks? He’d yet to spot her, but visitors over the years had claimed to see the figure of a veiled woman floating about the villa. A benign entity according to the tales and not into poltergeist activities like throwing glass and china.

So he hadn’t imagined the intruder in the garden? He made a mental note to remember to set the alarm in future. The villa stuffed with antiques littering the shelves and cupboards might have drawn an opportunistic thief.

He snatched a wooden spoon from the rack. Not on his watch. The last thing he needed was an accusation of selling off the family treasures to fund his degenerate lifestyle.

In one of the guest bedrooms, he discovered the scattered shards of a Lalique statuette littering the floor, an open closet door and clothing rumpled by what looked like a hasty search. The villa closets harboured some valuable vintage labels. Was the intruder after those?

Briefly, he considered going back to the kitchen for a knife or to the gun cabinet for a shotgun. No, God only knew where that might lead. He didn’t need an accidental murder to add to his dubious resume.

A scraping sound from the en-suite bathroom caught his attention. Wooden spoon aloft, he crossed the room and then flattened himself against the wall behind the door.

“I know you’re in there. And I’m armed. Come out and no one will get hurt.”

He could only hope the thief turned out to be one of the children who hung about the ruined temple when playing hooky from school. With a bit of luck, they’d panic and run for the open window and the police need not be involved to provide more fodder for the scandal rags.

“Did you hear me? I said come out.”

Breathing. The sound of someone sucking in breath and exhaling heavily, as if steeling themselves to bolt. He should at least attempt to stop them. Check to see whether they’d managed to grab anything of value. Or more importantly check they weren’t armed themselves, in which case they could take what they liked; he didn’t intend to take a bullet or a blade for the sake of a few dusty antiques.

Did this bathroom have a window? So long since he’d visited the villa, he couldn’t remember, but it would surely have a mirror. Stealthily, he angled his head to give himself a view through the crack in the back of the open door.

The sleek curve of a naked back. Two perfectly-rounded buttocks, God in heaven. He heaved a small sigh of relief that he wasn’t finally losing his mind. There had been a naked woman in the garden. A naked woman who was now staring at him, wide-eyed from the bathroom mirror, a black-silk ball gown clutched to her chest. Stefano lowered the spoon.

A thief he could buy. The nudity, not so much. Someone out to steal a vintage label wouldn’t strip naked and then make their escape wearing the thing. Not a sane one anyway.

Or was there another reason this woman needed clothing? A stupid bet? Or something worse? She looked beyond terrified.

“Are you okay?”

If she’d been attacked and molested and needed clothing, wouldn’t she be hammering on the front door asking for help?

Okay, just a woman. And he’d yet to meet a woman he couldn’t handle.

The door flew open with such force he nearly impaled himself on the wooden spoon. With a sharp crack, the heavy oak bounced off his nose, flattening him against the wall. A whisper of silk flew by. He pushed back the door.

Dio mio! He shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. The double balcony doors were already open, the lace curtains billowing and a trail of black silk slithering over the edge.

Bloody hell.

One hand cradling his aching nose, he gave chase, leaping the balcony railing onto the terrace a few feet below. The pale curve of a woman’s back, a shapely butt flashed around the corner of the villa. She wouldn’t get very far naked and clutching that meringue of a ball gown. Not without tripping over the trailing hem.

“The gates are coded and locked,” he called out and bent at the waist, riding a wave of dizziness.

Feeling in his pocket, he found a tissue to dab at his bleeding nose. It came away soaked. Oh hell. He pressed, pinching hard. The thin trickle of blood turned into a gushing fountain, splashing his white tee-shirt with streaks of red. He clutched at his battered nose, praying it wasn’t broken and tomorrow’s black eyes wouldn’t add more fuel to the rumours of his latest downfall.

And to complete his perfect morning, now the gates were sliding silently aside and Mariella the housekeeper was turning the curve in the narrow track leading to the villa, handbag clutched to her chest, a remote controller in her hand. The thief broke cover, flinging herself through the widening gap, barging past the housekeeper and disappeared down the dirt track, dress flying like a banner behind her.

Mariella shook her head in weary resignation, as if the spectacle had fulfilled her every expectation of him and fished in her capacious bag for a clean tissue. She thrust it at him and continued along the drive muttering darkly.

“Bad boys do not deserve pity. Especially spoilt and obscenely rich bad boys.”

Throwing down the soiled tissue, Stefano pulled the tee-shirt over his head and used it to stem the flow of blood. Not pity, but a little sympathy would be more than welcome right now. How often had he craved that simple thing as a child only to have his parents and grandparents, pat him on the head and laugh indulgently at his little tearaway self?

He managed a short, dry laugh and lowered himself to sit on one of the boulders beside the ornate iron gates. No point in taking any of this personally. The lack of any expectation had at least given him the freedom to please himself. Unlike Dario, his elder brother, who’d been lumbered with the full burden of family responsibility right down to his choice of university and first wife.

Stefano checked the sodden tee-shirt, relieved the torrent had lessened to a trickle. If the nose wasn’t broken and he kept still for the next week or so, there should be no lasting damage.

Not physical, anyway. The reputation he’d been trying so hard to reboot? The fallout wouldn’t reach him until he caught up with the mysterious ball gown thief and found out exactly what her intentions were.

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