The Start of Something Beautiful

Christian Karas arrived at the front entrance of the prestigious Principe di Savoia at half past ten. The front of the hotel faced the raucous traffic of Piazza della Repubblica, but the view from the rear was more tranquil, opening onto the Alps. Chris hoped he’d be able to rest here. He’d spent a sleepless couple of nights at the family’s villa, but couldn’t remain there any longer. He’d visited the Italian estate often with Deanna. Everything there reminded him of her. Chris thought that he could tolerate being there, but losing her was still too heavy a burden.

Chris wasn’t even sure he could tolerate being in Milan. The only reason he was here was because of a horse named Deanna’s Dream, the thoroughbred racing in the Gran Premio del Jockey Club this afternoon.

The valet parking attendant opened the door of the red 599 when it pulled up. He offered a broad smile as Chris stepped from the Ferrari into the bright autumn sunshine. “Buongiorno, signore! Bentornati l’Hotel Principe di Savoia.”

Strange, the valet welcomed him back to the hotel, but he hadn’t been here for at least a decade and this man was no more than twenty-five. Obviously the attendant confused him with someone else. Christian chalked it up to mistaken identity and gave the man a slight nod. “Grazie.”

“Avete bagagli, signore?”

Chris indicated the rear of the gran turismo. The valet reached for the release. A bellman appeared and removed the tailored Ferrari luggage from the boot.

Chris crossed the red marble floor of the lobby and passed through the draperied doorway toward the front desk. The grand lobby was abuzz as guests consulted the concierge, connected with friends or busied themselves on their phones while waiting to connect. The checkout side of the reception desk seemed especially busy. Chris scanned the space, committing the number and location of the exits to memory. He heard the murmur of voices and muted laughter accompanied by the rattling of glassware coming from the nearby lobby lounge and made note of the number of people in the lobby as he counted the steps it took to reach the desk.

Situational awareness was a skill he had practiced since becoming a cop and one that had become stale with the routine cases he’d been assigned and his subsequent hiatus from the department. His carelessness contributed to Deanna’s death. He would never let his guard down again.

From somewhere behind him, a woman’s voice called. No one answered. The woman, a Roman by the sound of it, called again. He was about to turn to see to whom the voice belonged, when he heard the tap, tap, tap of someone wearing high heels running up behind him. He whirled on the approaching female just as she reached him.

“Stefano, perché mi ignore?”

Chris translated her question—why do you ignore me—and had just enough time to interpret her expression and body language as non-threatening before she kissed him full on the lips. Her arms encircled him, her hands slid down the length of his back until her eyelids flew open. Eyes that were familiar returned her gaze with a mixture of amusement and confusion, but no recognition.

The woman stepped back and studied his features. The eyes were the same, but the face was slightly younger. The wide-eyed woman stared at Chris, realizing she’d made a terrible mistake. “Mi dispiace,” she stammered.

“I didn’t realize the Savoia had a welcoming committee,” Chris remarked as he removed a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his lips to test for lipstick there.

“You are American?”

“Greek by birth, but yes, I’m an American.”

“I must apologize for my behavior, signore. I am afraid I mistook you for…for someone else,” she explained.

“My misfortune,” he replied.

The woman, a pretty brunette with hazel eyes and high cheekbones blushed as she stared intently at Chris. “The resemblance is uncanny,” she said, mesmerized. “You are very nearly his twin, however, I should have realized my error when I saw you were alone.”

“I don’t follow…”

“Stefano always travels with…people. Stefano Drakos,” she added. “Do you know him?”

Chris shook his head. “The name is not familiar to me, signorina. I’m sorry.”

“As I said, you could be his twin.”

Chris offered a polite smile.

The woman gasped and remembered her manners. “Mi scuso—I have not introduced myself.” She thrust out her hand. “I am Viviana Da Via. How do you do?”

“Christian Karas, è un piacere.”

Viviana flashed a radiant smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Christian. A proper introduction was overdue since I had already accosted you, do you not agree?”

“I seem to be undamaged, signorina.”

“Viviana—after all, we have had, already, our first kiss.”

Chris bowed his head slightly. “Viviana,” he repeated.

The Italian woman smiled. “Perhaps you will join me for a drink later?”

Viviana was beautiful and charming, but Chris was not in the mood for company. “Perhaps.”

“Unless of course you are with someone,” Viviana added, looking around the lobby. “I do not wish to appear forward—no more than I have already, that is.”

“Not at all,” answered Chris. He summoned a charming smile. “I…have an engagement shortly and don’t know when I’ll return…”

She smiled warmly as she offered her hand to the American. “I am in the Royal Suite—if your plans change.”

Chris nodded and pressed a kiss to her hand. “Forse più tardi.”

Viviana’s breath caught in her throat. “So like Stefano.” She flashed a gracious smile. “Perhaps later,” she echoed.

Chris excused himself and headed toward Reception leaving Viviana to stare curiously at the American.

The clerk at the reception desk seemed at war with his computer when Chris arrived. He glanced up quickly and smiled as he returned his attention to the errant machine. “Ah, Signore Drakos. You have returned to us.”

“I’m afraid not.”

The clerk’s head shot up and he looked aghast at the American. “Perdonami, signore. I am afraid I have confused you for another of our guests. I do apologize.”

“It’s quite all right,” replied Chris dryly. “There seems to be a lot of that going around today.”

The clerk smiled politely, not quite understanding the joke. “I am Lucio, signore. How may I help you?”

“I telephoned about a reservation last evening—the name is Karas, K-A-R-A-S.”

“Sissignore, I will check it for you.” The clerk’s fingertips flew over the keyboard and pressed enter. Nothing happened. Enter again. Nothing. Again. Still nothing. Lucio frowned and narrowed his eyes. The frustrated clerk slapped the side of his monitor—it always amused Chris when people did that.

The young clerk held out his hands in apology. “Forgive me, signore. The computer is not working well today. We have lost, already, several reservations because of it.” He hit enter a final time. The computer rewarded him with the information and he cackled at his victory over the infernal contraption. “Ah,” he exclaimed, “here we are—Signore Christian Karas—you are in the Presidential Suite.”

Chris handed the clerk his credit card. Lucio swiped the card and completed the transaction. When the clerk attempted to authorize Chris’ key card, he met with more frustration. After the second attempt, he shook his head and glanced at his guest. “Signore, I must apologize again for my computer. This is very embarrassing.” Lucio encoded the key card the third time and handed it to Chris. “We have a technician attempting to repair the computer as I speak. I will escort you to your suite personally to ensure the card works properly.”

“Grazie.”

Christian trailed the clerk to the private elevator that would whisk them to the top floor of the hotel and the Presidential Suite. He entered the elevator first, followed by Lucio.

The clerk turned to face forward and gasped. “Ciao, bella ragazza,” he whispered.

Chris’ eyes followed the man’s gaze and noted the arrival of another guest as she entered the lobby. The woman, about his age, had dark hair and stunning looks.

Lucio looked to Chris, slightly embarrassed at his own reaction. “Forgive me, signore, but she is very beautiful. Do you not agree?”

Chris cast an impassive glance at the woman as she approached the front desk. She was uncommonly beautiful, but Deanna was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He declined comment as the elevator doors closed, prompting Lucio to raise a curious brow.

﴿   ﴾

Another clerk replaced Lucio at the desk. He greeted the new arrival with an appreciative smile. “Buongiorno, signorina. Come posso aiutarti?”

“Buongiorno. Ho una prenotazione.”

“May I have your name?”

“Teresa Galanos.”

“One moment, signorina.” The clerk typed at the keyboard and hit enter. The screen flickered, but the display remained unchanged. The young man sighed. He hit enter again and smiled, relieved that the machine displayed the requested information. “Sì—Signorina Teresa Galanos—you have reserved the Presidential Suite.”

“Yes.” Teresa handed the clerk her credit card.

The clerk took Teresa’s card but handed it back to her a moment later. “Mi scuso, signorina, there is no need for your credit card. We have on file, already, another card.”

“You have?”

“Sì signorina.”

“Oh,” she exclaimed, returning her card to her wallet. “That—was thoughtful of him.”

He finished the check-in and handed the young woman her encoded key card.

“Thank you. I…am late—very late to meet my friend,” she declared, withdrawing a ten euro note from her wallet and handing it to the clerk. “Will you have my bags delivered to my suite? Don’t bother unpacking them. I’ll do that myself.”

“Certainly signorina. I am Serge. If you require anything else during your stay, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“Grazie, Serge.” Teresa spun on her heel and headed toward the front entrance.

“Prego.” Serge smiled as he pocketed the money and watched the woman depart.

Another man joined Serge at the desk and informed him that he discovered the problem, but needed to reboot the hotel’s computer network.

The exasperated clerk scowled at his screen. “Then do it, Vittore. It is useless to me as it is.”

Vittore slipped away to carry out his task. Serge glanced once more at Teresa Galanos, admiring her shapely legs and then turned his attention to other duties.

Teresa approached the doorman and smiled. “Taxi per favore.”

The doorman raised a white gloved hand and summoned a nearby taxi. It pulled forward and stopped at the curb. Teresa slipped a five euro note into the doorman’s gloved hand as he held the door for her.

“Grazie, signore.”

The taxi driver glanced at his fare and flashed a toothy grin at the woman. “Dove posso prendere?”

“San Siro, per favore. Portami al Gran Premio del Jockey Club.”

﴿   ﴾

The Presidential Suite was the most exclusive suite in Europe. At nearly fifty-four hundred square feet, it was also the largest. Previous guests included Queen Elizabeth II, George Clooney and Lenny Kravitz. The penthouse suite featured Empire style antique furnishings, an elegant living room with working fireplace and Venetian nineteenth century mirrors. The formal dining room was furnished with French crystal and Limoges porcelain and silverware. The three-bedroom suite boasted Murano glass lamps and chandeliers, bronze wall lamps and original late nineteenth century paintings. The most exotic feature was a private Pompeian-style spa with a swimming pool, whirlpool, Jacuzzi, a sauna and a Turkish bath. A private terrace with a panoramic view of Milan completed the luxuriously appointed rooms.

Lucio breathed a sigh of relief when Chris’ key card unlocked the door. He led his guest through the rooms, pointing out the bar and other amenities as Chris committed the floor plan and location of the furniture to memory.

The bellman arrived with Chris’ luggage and set about unpacking. The American held up his hand indicating it wasn’t necessary and directed the man to place the bags in the closet. He thanked both men, providing each a generous tip. Chris stepped back into the living room and pulled his iPhone from the breast pocket of his suit as the two men departed. He stood next to the baby grand piano and tapped out a number on the smart phone’s keypad, idly plunking out a few notes as he waited for his party to come on the line.

“Pronto.”

“Emilio? Christian Karas.”

“Chris. It is good to hear your voice, my friend.”

“It’s good to hear your voice, too.”

“Are you here in Milan?”

“Yes.”

“Fantastico! Is your brother here as well?”

“No. Damon’s in Madrid.”

“Ah. Well, we must have dinner while you are here.”

Chris frowned. “I…have a pretty tight schedule while I’m here,” he lied.

“I will not take no for an answer,” declared Emilio.

“Maybe,” Chris sighed. After a brief silence, he added, “But not so much wine this time.”

“I make no promises, my friend.”

Chris paused before continuing. “I need a favor Emilio.”

“Anything, name it and it is yours.”

“Find me everything you can on someone named Stefano Drakos.”

“I have heard of this man.”

That revelation surprised Chris. “You have? Who is he?”

“He is a Greek, but lives in Roma. He was unknown to us until last year when he began attending premiers and exclusive parties. He is a wealthy man who prefers to remain anonymous. He stays out of the media’s eye and is very cautious about his circle of friends. He does not permit photographs and always travels with an entourage for protection.”

“Interesting, find out what you can about him. I was mistaken for him today and it’s made me curious.”

“I will telephone you later with what I find.”

“I’m attending the Gran Premio today.”

“Ah, then I will ring you this evening.”

“Fine, I’m staying at the Savoia.”

Emilio was surprised. “The Savoia? Why do you not stay…?”

“Too many memories, Emilio.”

“Ah, I understand, my friend. Perhaps we should have wine. We will get drunk and have a good cry to mourn your beautiful Deanna.”

Chris glanced in the mirror and flicked a piece of lint from his black Attolini suit. He was struck by the image the mirror reflected back. Chris appeared strong and confident, but it was a persona he’d forced himself to adopt. The cost of taking down Henry Jarvis and his gang of human traffickers had cost him everything—everything that mattered. It had cost him his beloved Deanna.

Chris’ friends and family tried to assure him that Deanna’s murder was not his fault, that Jarvis killed Deanna when she accidentally discovered that he was behind the trafficking operation, not because of Chris’ investigation. He blamed himself anyway. If he and Damon had heeded the FBI’s warning, backed off when they were told, Deanna would be alive.

Jarvis taunted Chris, gloated about killing Deanna. Jarvis told Chris it was his fault, that Deanna wouldn’t be dead if Chris had only dropped his investigation. It was no secret that Chris wanted him dead. When he tracked Jarvis to Anacapa Island and Jarvis was killed attempting to flee the island, the press had a field day. “Rogue Cop Slaughters Fiancée’s Killer,” screamed one headline. “Karas Doles Out Justice, Eye for an Eye,” insisted another.

The paparazzi pursued him, even going so far as to camp on his lawn and wait for him to emerge from the house. “Finally, a chink in the armor,” called one paparazzo as he snapped Chris’ picture outside the police station. Anonymity was one reason he’d come to Italy. He grieved for Deanna, but he now had the stoic public face and the face he wore when no one was present to see his grief. He realized, as he stared at his mirror image, that he wore the public face even though Emilio couldn’t see him.

“Thanks for the offer, Emilio, but I think I’m all cried out,” he lied. “I’ll wait for your call.”

Emilio had the good sense not to press the issue. “Until then my friend, ciao.”

﴿   ﴾

Surrounded by huge green spaces, Ippodromo del Galoppo was a literal oasis minutes away from Milan’s bustling city center. The San Siro racecourse was one of the most beautiful in the world, renowned for its prestigious horse races and selection of courses, and the only course in the world that enjoyed the title “national monument”.

A concierge escorted Chris to a private VIP hospitality suite connected to a garden terrace from which to view the race. The exclusive suite had special appeal to the rich and famous. Here heads of state mingled with moguls from the business world, celebrities and sports superstars. Occasionally, celebrities with more notorious reputations attended, setting off a maelstrom of gossip.

Chris wagered ten thousand euros on Deanna’s Dream. The concierge asked if he knew the odds. Chris directed the man to place the bet—Deanna’s Dream to win. The American forced himself to be gracious as he greeted other racegoers and several acquaintances. He nursed a Negroni Sbagliato as he wandered the room. He picked at the antipasti and sampled the Risotto alla Milanese, but found the osso buco palatable.

At post time, Chris made his way to the terrace with the others to view the race. He watched impassively as the horses left the gate and battled for the inside track. The field soon narrowed with the predicted favorite in the lead.

As the beasts advanced toward their goal, Chris became distracted thinking back to the day he’d met Deanna at his polo match three years before and Deanna’s coy smile as she stroked Apollo’s mane. Chris recalled the gentle nudge the jealous Argentina gave her when Deanna shifted her attention to Chris rather than lavishing it on Apollo.

A female voice next to him forced his return to reality. The woman to whom the voice belonged suddenly became more excited and began to root for Deanna’s Dream.

“C’mon Dream…c’mon!”

Chris glanced to his left, surprised to find the woman Lucio pointed out from the elevator. Christian refocused his attention on the race to discover that Deanna’s Dream was making his move, passing every other horse on the track. In an incredible come from behind moment, the thoroughbred was neck and neck with the race leader.

Chris began to cheer for Deanna’s Dream, too. The duo stood side by side, cheering the stallion on and casting amused looks at one another. The horses rounded the final turn coming into the home stretch. It was Moonracer and Deanna’s Dream, Deanna’s Dream and Moonracer.

The horses crossed the finish line, but it was too close to call. A photo finish would have to determine the winner. Chris stood mesmerized by the young woman next to him. Her beauty was intoxicating. It was easy to see why Lucio had been so captivated, but he was more curious to know her interest in a longshot like Deanna’s Dream. Chris’ unexpected companion sensed Chris staring at her. She glanced in his direction and flashed a nervous smile. “What?”

“It’s very exciting,” he said, his gaze never wavering from her.

“Yes,” she replied, suddenly aware of how handsome Chris was.

Chris’ unknown new companion flashed another demure smile before returning her attention to the race-caller’s voice as he announced the winner.

Deanna’s Dream by a nose!

Chris and the woman cheered and laughed as they hugged each other. Excitement gave way to embarrassment as they each became aware of the physical contact.

Chris released his hold on her and smiled an apology. “I’m sorry,” he offered. “I-I got…”

“Caught up in the moment,” she finished.

“Yes.” He grinned and held out his hand. “Christian Karas.”

“Teresa Galanos.”

“Galanos,” he repeated. “Did you say Galanos?”

“Aren’t you a little young to be having hearing problems?”

Chris smiled and shook his head. “Sorry,” he replied. “It’s just that my mother’s maiden name was Galanos,” he explained as they walked back to the hospitality suite. “Your accent is American. Do you live in the states?”

Teresa nodded. “New York.” She paused and regarded Chris. “I’m curious about something. That horse was twenty to one odds. Why did you bet on him?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing.”

“I asked you first,” she countered.

Chris smiled, but his tone was reserved. “I liked the name,” he shrugged.

“He was named for my friend.”

“Deanna’s Dream is your horse?”

“Yes. Well, partly. I own a partial stake, but he really belongs to my friend.” She nodded toward the closed circuit TV screen. “James Townsend.”

Christian glanced at the monitor to see Deanna’s Dream and his jockey heading to the winner’s circle. A man with sandy brown hair that had begun to grey at the temples followed behind, grinning and shaking hands. He was average looking, not handsome, but not homely, with a full face and thin lips. The photographer’s flashes washed out his already pale complexion making him appear anemic. Chris placed Townsend at about fifty.

“He’s your…companion?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Teresa. She suddenly gasped and then laughed when she realized his meaning. “Oh God, no! My friend, Deanna, was his daughter. She was killed in a car accident two years ago.” Teresa’s lip quivered. “This was her dream—to race. James is just…living it out for her.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” murmured Chris.

“Thank you.”

An awkward silence passed between them before Chris found his voice again. Shouldn’t—you be down there?” he asked. “You are one of the owners.”

Teresa smiled and shook her head, using her hands to emphasize her point. “Oh, I—am terrified of horses. I begged James to let me watch from here.”

Chris shook his head and smiled. “You’re terrified of horses, but you bought a stake in a racehorse?”

“Crazy right?”

“Yeah,” Chris chuckled.

“Tell me what was special about your Deanna?”

The query and her intuition caught Chris off guard. He hadn’t mentioned Deanna to her and wasn’t prepared to answer questions about her. “Every-everything,” he murmured.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, realizing the anguish her question had caused.

Chris nodded, feeling his emotions rising dangerously close to the surface. “How did you…?”

Teresa shrugged. “I recognized you from television,” she confessed. “The story made the news in New York. My heart broke for you when I saw you after her funeral. You looked so…lost.”

Christian looked away. “It’s been—difficult,” he replied. “Look, I’d rather not talk about this right now.” He turned back to see a look of pity in her eyes. He hated that look.

“Of course,” she replied.

Chris nodded in silent gratitude.

“I know exactly what you’re going through.”

Teresa’s persistence raised his hackles. Chris’ heart raced and his blood ran a little hotter. He was scowling and realized this conversation was headed in a direction he didn’t like with someone he didn’t know. Why did people always insist they knew you and what you were feeling?

Teresa continued, oblivious to his silent anger. “When we lost our Deanna…”

“I’m not sure losing your BFF qualifies you as an expert,” Chris shot back. “And it sure as hell isn’t the same as losing the love of your life—and your soul mate!”

Teresa stopped short. “I’m-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry.”

“Excuse me,” Christian muttered. He stormed off and headed for the exit, leaving Teresa to stare after him in stunned silence.

Christian descended the stairs and paused on the first floor landing. He took a deep, cleansing breath and then another. He didn’t intend to be rude, but he also didn’t expect this—not today, not here. As Chris stood trying to compose himself, his phone vibrated, demanding his attention. Chris glanced at the screen to see that it was his contact at the Finance Guard. He took a deep breath and answered. “Emilio.” There was still too much emotion in his voice.

“Sì, are you all right, my friend?”

Another breath. “I’m fine.” The public Chris Karas was back on duty now. “What did you find?”

Emilio was discouraged. “I found nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Stefano Drakos’ records are sealed.”

“Sealed? Who sealed them?”

“I cannot find out. It is above my clearance level and my clearance level is very high.”

This was turning into a bigger mystery than he expected. Chris glanced up to see Teresa Galanos descending the ancient staircase. “I gotta go, Emilio. I’ll call you later.” He ended the call and pushed his way through the crowd, disappearing from view.

﴿   ﴾

Chris wandered the grounds while he turned the mystery of Stefano Drakos over in his head. Someone sealed those records—someone with great authority. Who was Drakos? And why were the records sealed? Emilio was a top-level agent in the Finance Guard with top secret clearance. If he was denied access, then who would have the authority to unseal those records? That would probably take diplomatic level intervention. Damn! A smile eased its way to Chris’ lips. There was one person he knew of with intimate knowledge of Stefano Drakos. “Viviana Da Via,” he murmured.

A commotion near the stables earned Christian’s attention. An altercation broke out between two of the jockeys, drawing the owners into the fracas. James Townsend was one of the men involved. Chris arrived just as the melee spooked one of the horses. The stallion reared up and broke free of his handler. He whirled, churning up a dust cloud with his thrashing hooves that caused the crowd to scatter for safety. No longer restrained, the big horse bolted. One person stood in the horse’s way. Teresa Galanos! The crowd stood frozen in horror as the horse charged toward the frightened woman.

Chris sprang into action tracking the horse’s movements and Teresa’s response. The odds of him reaching Teresa and pulling her to safety without both of them being trampled to death were…not good. Frankly, they sucked. He was no match for the stallion’s speed, but he did have one advantage, he was closer.

Heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, Christian sprinted forward in a death-defying race with the out of control beast. The horse was so close Chris could practically feel the animal’s body heat as he dove over a rail and took Teresa down in a flying tackle, pulling the young woman to safety a split second before the thoroughbred trampled the ground on which she’d stood. They landed in the dusty hay in a heap of tangled limbs as the stallion careened around the corner of the stables. The handler and others took off in pursuit of the race horse while the remaining members of the crowd rushed toward the couple.

Teresa found herself staring into the cool, blue-eyed gaze of Christian Karas. As the shock of nearly being flattened passed, a horrified gasp escaped her lips. She felt the heat of embarrassment flush her cheeks. Shock turned to chagrin brought on by the fact that the clod was laying on top of her and that he didn’t seem the least bit concerned that his manhood was grinding into her lady parts. Pervert! He better not be enjoying this.

Piercing blue eyes peered back at her. “Are you all right?” He asked, his voice as silky smooth as ever.

Teresa swallowed hard. “I’m—I’m fine.” When he made no attempt to move, she huffed. “Would you mind getting your…? Would you get off of me?”

Chris lifted himself from her with the lithe of an athlete and offered his hand. She took it out of necessity and allowed his assistance to regain her feet.

Townsend was the first to reach the couple. He wrapped his arms protectively around Teresa. “My God! Are you all right?”

Chris noted that Townsend looked at Teresa with more than fatherly concern for the friend of his daughter. His was a look of devotion, adoration. Townsend was in love with her, but she didn’t know it. She didn’t even suspect it!

“I’m fine James,” she breathed, picking hay from her hair. Her tone turned mordant. “Mr. Karas managed to tackle me in the nick of time.”

“I’m sorry, was there a thank you in there somewhere?” Chris asked with mock confusion. “Because I’m afraid I missed it.”

Chris’ rebuke stung. She hadn’t intended to sound ungrateful, but she was still in a fair amount of shock. “Thank you,” she snapped.

“Yes, thank you,” added Townsend, extending his hand toward Chris. “James Townsend.”

Chris paused, staring intently at Townsend before taking his hand. “Christian Karas,” he replied.

The crowd started to disperse with one woman comparing Chris to a daring knight who bravely rescued the beautiful damsel in distress. Teresa rolled her eyes at the comment as she tried to brush the dust from her white Versace dress. She frowned, doubtful that the frock could be salvaged.

“We’d like to show our appreciation for your assistance this afternoon,” offered James. “Will you join us for dinner this evening as our guest?”

Chris glanced at Teresa who looked aghast at the suggestion, but she avoided eye contact with Christian. “I’m afraid I can’t this evening. I have a—previous engagement.” As a mocking gesture, he bowed to Teresa, flashing an acerbic smile. “I apologize if I damaged you princess. Sometimes we knights just get a little caught up in the moment.”

James Townsend cast a bemused look toward the young man as Teresa huffed and turned her back toward Chris.

Chris glanced at Townsend and nodded. “Arrivaderci.”

“Arrivaderci,” mumbled Townsend in reply, not quite understanding what he’d missed.

﴿   ﴾

The door of the Royal Suite swung wide to reveal Viviana Da Via in all her splendor. She wore a striking Valentino one-shoulder gown in red with voulant ruffles cascading down the sides and a straight skirt that drew the eye to her trim hips. Viviana smiled when she saw Chris standing in the hall. He held a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, a corkscrew and two glasses.

“Christian! What an unexpected surprise,” she cooed.

“It seems my plans have changed,” smiled Chris.

“Yes, I see. Come in.”

Chris stepped past the woman into the marble-floored entry hall. Viviana closed the door and led her guest into the spacious living room. The lavishly decorated room featured inlaid wood floors and walls paneled in rich red silk. Exquisite fabrics of red and gold silk upholstered the suite’s elegant furnishings. “You look stunning,” Chris complimented.

“Thank you.”

“Were you on your way out?”

“I am dining with friends.”

“Should I call another time?”

“I am in no hurry.” She smiled an amused sort of smile. “But what has happened to you?”

Chris glanced down at his dishevelled appearance and chuckled. “I had a little roll in the hay earlier.”

“That must have been enjoyable.”

Christian shrugged. “Not nearly as much as you might think,” he replied.

Viviana gestured toward the sofa. “Please sit. Let us be comfortable.”

Chris sat and held the wine out for her approval. “May I?”

Viviana nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

The American opened the bottle and poured some in each glass. He took one and handed the other to his hostess, raising his into the air. “To new friends,” he smiled.

Viviana touched her glass to that of her charming companion. “To new friends,” she agreed, sipping the Montalcino. Viviana bowed her head slightly in deference to her guest. “You have excellent taste in wine.”

“As well as companions,” returned Chris.

“That is most kind,” the woman blushed.

Chris engaged the woman in small talk for some time, learning the details of her life. She grew up privileged in Rome, the daughter of a financier and his French-born socialite wife. She attended private schools and vacationed in the most exclusive resorts.

“Tell me about Stefano,” Chris finally broached.

Viviana sipped her wine and sighed. “Mmm, what can I say about Stefano,” she effused. “He is suave and handsome and very wealthy. He enjoys opera and art and speaks many languages. He surrounds himself with beautiful things and even more beautiful people. He has a very exclusive inner circle of friends.”

“Of which you’re a part?”

Viviana nodded sadly. “Yes, or…was.”

“How well do you know him?”

“We were engaged for a brief period of time,” replied Viviana sadly.

Not surprising considering how Viviana had greeted him in the lobby when she mistook Chris for Stefano. “May I ask what happened?”

Viviana shrugged. “It was not meant to be. We parted amicably—by mutual agreement.”

Chris sipped at the contents of his glass and cocked his head to one side. “It seems it wasn’t so mutual on your part,” he said.

“It was a long time ago.”

“Where does his money come from?”

“It is family money earned from investments, real estate, stocks and bonds”

“So…you’ve met his family?”

“Only his sister and grandfather. They were…odd.”

“In what way?”

Viviana shrugged. “They were…secretive—and very protective of Stefano.”

“What about his parents.”

“They are dead.”

“How?”

“They were killed in a car accident when Stefano was a baby.”

“How old did you say he was?”

Viviana sipped at her wine. “I didn’t,” she smiled slyly.

Christian arched his right eyebrow in a gesture that was so incredibly familiar, a slight gasp escaped Viviana’s lips. She recalled her days with Stefano and how he would look at her with the same intense stare and the same irresistibly sexy, pillowed lips, parted slightly, enticing her, drawing her in.

Viviana’s pulse quickened and she wondered if Christian knew the effect he had on women. Every female eye in the lobby this afternoon was drawn to him. Most of them probably fantasized about bedding the American. His looks were so striking that even the men stared, probably wondering what it was like to be him. It was insulting, really—he was very nearly prettier than she was.

He gazed pointedly at her, awaiting her answer. “Viviana?”

“My apologies,” she breathed. “I…became distracted. Stefano is twenty-four.”

“Twenty-four,” repeated Chris. He was silent for a moment. “Do I really look like him?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “If I did not know that Stefano was an only child, I would swear that you were his brother.”

Her words echoed in his brain. His brother. “The resemblance is that striking?”

“It is more than looks, Christian. You share the same mannerisms and the same velvet tone to your voice—it is remarkable.”

“Do you have a photo of Stefano?”

Viviana frowned. “No. Stefano has always been very—protective of his image. He does not allow his photo to be taken. If he is allowed to venture out, it is only with an armed entourage to protect him.”

“Why is that?”

“The only explanation he ever gave was that he undertook such measures to protect himself from those who sought to hurt him.”

“Did he ever tell you who that might be?”

“No, but he did say that his grandfather was quite insistent and strict on the matter. I recently heard from friends that Stefano started attending galas and that he defied his grandfather by sneaking off to Rio for Carnival.”

“Was there retribution for that defiance?”

“Oh yes,” replied Viviana. “Stefano has been exiled to the family yacht as it sails around the world, putting into port only when supplies are needed and only in remote areas.”

“He’s become a prisoner,” Chris murmured.

Viviana bowed her head. “Yes. When I saw you this morning, I thought you…I mean, he had somehow escaped.”

“What is the grandfather’s name?” asked Chris.

“Thanos.”

Chris released a measured breath, considering these new pieces to the puzzle. He finally broke off his musings and flashed Viviana the trademark Karas grin—it required considerably more effort these days. “I’ve taken far too much of your time,” he said, pressing a light kiss to her cheek. “Thank you for your charming company.”

“The pleasure was mine, Christian. I hope I will see you again soon.”

“I’d like that.”

﴿   ﴾

Christian’s mind was occupied with Stefano Drakos as he rode the private elevator to the penthouse. Stefano lived a lonely existence, seldom venturing out in public and then only with a large entourage of personal staff and bodyguards. When he rebelled, he was punished for his insolence. Then there’s the apparent uncanny resemblance.

Chris and Damon are a year apart, but look so much alike, they’re often mistaken for twins. It’s not an impossibility for Chris to also resemble…him. Christian shares more than looks with the mysterious Stefano. According to Viviana, Chris shares his mannerisms. He began to formulate a theory, but it was so incredible, so preposterous he almost didn’t want to give credence to it. Could Stefano be Alexio? Was it possible that his brother, kidnapped and believed murdered all those years ago, was still alive?

Christian’s grandfather had been an NIS agent for Greece during the Cold War. Nikolas Karas made many enemies over the years and had always suspected that one or more of them was responsible for Alexio’s abduction. When the kidnappers sent his brother’s heart to his grandfather and claimed that they had killed the boy, Nikolas was devastated, inconsolable. He blamed himself for Alexio’s murder.

The authorities never found a body and the killers remained at large. DNA testing was in its infancy. The family was told that there was a “high probability” that the heart belonged to Alexio. What if it was all a lie, some demented game to strike back at his grandfather?

Chris consulted his watch as the elevator doors parted. Pappous was in Boston visiting Uncle Mikos. It was too early to call, but after a shower and a bite to eat… Chris would consider calling, but was his suspicion sufficient reason to dredge up his family’s painful past?

﴿   ﴾

Inside the palatial suite, Chris headed directly for the master bedroom and started undressing. He tossed his soiled jacket onto the bed and shook his head as he recalled the means by which it came to that end. With a little good fortune, a talented dry cleaner could salvage the five-thousand-dollar suit. He tossed his tie, silk dress shirt and undershirt into the growing pile of clothes and used his feet to slip out of his Ferragamos.

Christian sat on the bed to remove his socks and swore he heard humming. He stopped and listened for a moment, but all he heard now was silence. Chris sighed and shook his head, sure that the stress of the day was causing him to hear things that weren’t there. He stood and removed his pants, adding them to the pile.

Then Chris heard it again, humming accompanied by a sloshing sound. He crept to the safe and, clenching his teeth, opened it as quietly as he could. Chris drew his Glock from inside and flicked the safety, then silently made his way to the bathroom door and listened. The humming had stopped, but there was definitely someone in there—taking a bath?

Chris placed his hand on the knob and twisted it gently, slowly. When it wouldn’t turn any further, he took a breath and burst through the door. “Polizia!” he shouted.

“Aaaieee!” Teresa Galanos screamed and nearly jumped out of her skin.

Teresa had sought to ease the tension of a very trying day with a good soak and the mellow warbling of Lena Horne when a crazed lunatic wearing nothing but form-fitting low-rise briefs—that left little to the imagination—barged into her bathroom brandishing a gun. There were, fortunately for her, ample amounts of soap bubbles to preserve a modicum of her decency.

Chris was stunned at whom he saw. “You!” he gasped.

“You!” echoed Teresa, wide-eyed.

The duo screamed accusations and demands at one another, angrily trying to be heard over the other with Teresa struggling to protect her modesty and Christian pointing a very large…gun at her.

Chris realized they weren’t going to get anywhere by shouting at each other and finally held up his free hand, lowering his weapon. He flashed a wry grin as Teresa’s voice trailed off. “Enjoying your swim—princess?”

“How dare you,” she spat. “What do you mean barging into my suite and my bathroom dressed like that and holding a gun on me?”

Your suite?” retorted Chris. “This is my suite, princess.”

Stop calling me that,” she fumed, “or I swear to you I’ll…” Teresa shook her head in confusion. “What do you mean, ‘your suite’? James rented this suite for me.”

Chris frowned and glanced out the door checking for any sign of Townsend then turned his eyes back to Teresa. “Look, I don’t know what kind of scam you and your geriatric boyfriend are running here…”

“I told you, James is not my boyfriend…”

Chris cut her off. “Tell him that and besides, I don’t care! I want you out of that tub—now!”

Teresa was outraged. “Why? So you can rape me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” scoffed Chris.

“I’m not getting out of this tub until you leave this room.”

Chris shook his head and adopted an evil smile. He was enjoying her predicament just a little. “I’m not leaving until you get out. Suppose you have a weapon in there.”

Teresa glared at him. “A weapon!? In the bathtub!?”

Chris leaned against the wall, waving the Glock casually in the air. “I can wait.”

The angry woman looked for something to throw at him. Teresa’a eyes settled on the sponge next to her. She grabbed it and launched it at Chris’ head.

Chris ducked the soggy projectile as it thudded against the wall in a spray of soap suds and fell harmlessly to the tiled floor. He gave her a look of contempt as he swiped at the suds that splattered onto his cheek and shoulder.

Teresa groaned in frustration. “Please…will you just go,” she croaked.

The young man sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine, I’m calling security so we can sort this out. You have two minutes,” he warned her. “After that, I come in and haul you out of there, princess.”

Christian stepped out, closing the door behind him. He stood listening at the doorway for a moment until he heard crying. He backed away and shook his head. “Dammit,” he muttered.

He hated to hear a woman cry.

﴿   ﴾

The night manager and the hotel detective were enroute to the penthouse suite. That and the fact that Chris had a naked woman in his bathtub and was practically naked himself, prompted him to don some pants. In his mind, being clothed increased his credibility. Christian crossed to the closet and pulled out one of the suitcases. Sliding the zipper across the flap, he opened up a slit large enough to fit his hand through. Chris felt around inside and pulled out a black silk nightgown. He scowled as he clutched the lacy garment.

Teresa emerged from the bathroom at that exact moment wearing one of the white microfiber bathrobes the hotel provided. Teresa gasped when she saw him rummaging around in her suitcase. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

Chris dropped the lingerie on top of the Ferrari bag and shoved the suitcase aside.

Reaching for another, he glanced in her direction. Her eyes were red from crying, but he pretended not to notice. “Relax your highness—we have the same luggage. I’m just looking for a pair of pants.”

“Why are your bags in my room?”

“Obviously,” he derided as he unzipped the second suitcase, “there’s been a mistake.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “And it’s yours!”

I wasn’t the one trespassing in someone else’s bathtub,” he retorted. “And just to be clear—this is my room.” He snatched a pair of jeans from his bag and pulled them on.

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself!” Teresa hissed.

Chris zipped his fly and shot her an icy look. “That’s nice,” he taunted. “Did they teach you that in charm school?”

“You’re impossible,” she shot back.

The doorbell rang as Chris pulled a grey V-neck t-shirt over his head and tugged it down over his six-pack. It hugged his torso in all the right places. He caught her staring and smirked when she looked away quickly. His tone was mocking. “Get dressed, honey. We have company.”

Chris left the bedroom, closing the door behind him and crossed to the entry hall as the doorbell chimed a second time. He opened the portal to find four men standing in the hall. Two of them he recognized—Lucio, the clerk that checked him in, and the other clerk that replaced him at the front desk when Lucio escorted him to his suite. Obviously it had been a long day for the two men.  He presumed the other two were the manager and the detective.

The manager introduced himself as Marcello Casari then began to profusely apologize, explaining that there had been a terrible mistake. He was speaking quickly and prattling on about the hotel’s computer network. Chris ushered the men into the living room as Teresa, clad in high-waisted pants and a pink V-neck sweater, entered the room. Like Chris, she was barefoot.

Chris’ eyebrows shot up and an amused look crossed his face when he took in the tangled mop of chestnut hair on top of Teresa’a head.

“I can’t find my hairbrush,” she muttered.

Chris suppressed a smile and shook his head.

Marcello rushed to greet the young woman taking her hand into both of his and repeating his apology. “Signorina, there has been a terrible mistake at the hotel.”

“A mistake?” she repeated, incredulous. “No signore. There has been a crime!” she fumed. “This man broke into my suite and my bath and tried to assault me! I want him arrested!”

“Sì, signorina. That is what I am trying to explain…”

Teresa huffed and cut the man off. She pulled her hand away from the manager and pointed to the detective. “You! Are you the hotel detective?”

Raul Mattari took a step forward and spread out his hands apologetically. “Sì, signorina; however…”

“No! There is no ‘however’, this is my suite and I want him out of it!”

Chris grunted and shook his head. “If you will just listen to what these men have to say, they will explain it to you so that even you can understand the problem, princess. This suite has been rented to both of us.”

Teresa glared at him. “I told you not to call me that.” She recognized the clerk that checked her in and pointed to him. “He checked me in this morning! If there had been someone else assigned to this suite he would have known,” Teresa said hotly. “Tell them, Serge!”

Serge straightened and sputtered unintelligibly.

“There was a computer error that allowed the hotel to rent this suite to both of us,” explained Chris. “Lucio checked me in and escorted me to the suite. When you arrived, the computer allowed Serge to give you the same suite.”

Marcello hung his head. “Sì that is what I was trying to tell you.”

Teresa glowered at the men feeling outnumbered. “Where is James? He’ll clear up this mess.”

Raul cleared his throat. “Signore Townsend has been detained by the polizia.”

Teresa sat hard on the sofa. “What!?”

“It seems your boyfriend is accused of rigging the race,” supplied Chris.

“That’s outrageous!” The young woman was breathing hard. Her heart pounded in her chest. “I have to go to him,” she announced, leaping to her feet.

“Signorina, the police will not allow you to see him. There is nothing you can do tonight,” replied Raul, holding out his arms in a useless gesture.

“I have a contact at the Finance Guard, I’ll make a call and see what I can find out,” offered Chris. He was beginning to feel somewhat sorry for the woman. Clearly she had no idea about any of this.

Teresa was surprised by his sudden act of compassion. “Th-thank you,” she murmured.

Chris excused himself and headed for the bedroom. He placed a call to Emilio.

“Pronto.”

“Emilio? It’s Chris.”

“I’m sorry, my friend. I have not learned anything new on Drakos.”

“Not why I’m calling amico. You’re holding James Townsend for questioning, right?”

“I would ask you how you know this, but I stopped asking such questions years ago.”

“Did he do it—did he rig the race?”

“I do not know. We are still questioning him.”

“How long will that take?”

Emilio caught on quickly. “Are you in a hurry?”

Chris regarded his fingertips and shrugged. “Not especially.”

“It could take many hours, my friend.”

“Thanks Emilio.”

“No problem. Ciao.”

When Chris re-entered the living room, Teresa jumped up and searched his face for some comfort. He hated what he was about to do, but for reasons he couldn’t explain, he suddenly felt fiercely protective of her and told himself he was doing this for her welfare.

“Can your friend help?” She asked with a hopeful look in her eyes.

Chris shook his head. “I’m afraid not. His hands are tied. Your friend is facing very serious charges.”

Teresa’s face fell. She looked to Casari with pleading eyes. “Will you please find me another room?”

“I am very sorry, signorina, but there are no other rooms available tonight. Perhaps in the morning we may find you other accommodations.”

Teresa sighed. “May I at least stay in James’ suite until he returns?”

Standing behind her, Chris made eye contact with the manager and shook his head.

Marcello eyed the man and frowned. “That…that is not possible,” he stammered.

“Why?” demanded Teresa.

Lucio and Serge looked from each other to Marcello. Marcello nervously directed his gaze to Raul. “Raul, please explain to Signorina Galanos why she may not use Signore Townsend’s suite.”

Raul scowled at being made the bad guy, but quickly presented a plausible explanation.

“The police have—sealed the room and…left instructions that no one”—he repeated the words for effect—“no one is to enter without their permission.”

Teresa frowned. “Oh, I see.”

Chris nodded his approval. He hated the deception, but considering all that had happened, he felt keeping Teresa close was for the best. Besides, if he knew Emilio, the lie would become truth before long. “You have no choice,” he sighed. “I guess you’ll just have to stay here with me.”

Teresa gasped. “I will not!”

Lucio caught Serge’s eye and flashed him a crooked grin.

“Relax, Princess. I’m not asking you to sacrifice your chastity. I simply meant that this suite has two other bedrooms. We can come to some arrangement, can’t we?”

Teresa regarded him with suspicion. Why was he suddenly being so nice? He was up to something.  She stared at him at length, but could find nothing in his eyes to confirm her suspicion. Finally, she relented and addressed Serge. “Please move my bags into one of the other rooms,” she directed.

﴿   ﴾

Finally settled into her new room, Teresa shed her clothes and donned pink pinstriped satin pajamas. She grimaced when she looked into the mirror at her hair. The young woman searched her bags for her brush, but couldn’t find it. She realized with a small degree of horror that she must have left it in the master bedroom.

Teresa summoned her courage and padded to the door of the room. She pressed her ear to the portal and listened. The shower was running. She could sneak into the room, recover her brush and leave. He would never know she had been there.

The young woman took a deep breath and twisted the knob. She opened the door enough to peek through—the coast was clear. Tiptoeing into the room, she searched for the errant hairbrush looking on the bed, under chairs and anywhere else she could think of, but it was nowhere to be found.

Teresa bit her nail, wondering if she had taken it into the bathroom with her. She remembered that she knocked her overnight bag onto the bedroom floor spilling its contents. She thought she’d reclaimed everything. The bag was in her bedroom, but maybe… She dropped to her knees to look under the bed, but failed to notice the water in the bathroom had stopped running. She smiled when she found the missing brush.

“There you are,” she whispered.

Teresa rose to her feet and whirled around to make her escape just as Chris flung the door open and emerged from the bathroom wearing only a towel around his waist. She crashed right into him. Christian instinctively grabbed her arms to prevent her from stumbling backward. She struggled to break free, but Chris was too strong. Unfortunately, the towel was not tied tightly, it slipped from Chris’ waist and fell to the floor with a soft thud. Teresa impulsively looked down and gasped. Big mistake! Huge, actually. Mortified, Teresa gasped and forced her gaze upward again to stare back into Chris’ fiery eyes. neither view was preferable.

The initial shock passed and shouts of accusation were again hurled through the air as each of them tried to justify their actions.

“Let go of me!” Teresa commanded. She stared into his hooded blue eyes, but found no comfort in them. They were dark, like angry seas and fixed on her in a fierce stare. Teresa looked away to avoid his withering gaze.

“Is this going to be a recurring theme with you, princess?” His tone was full of rancor.

Teresa was afraid of Christian Karas for the first time since meeting him, fearful of what he might do to her. She must have been insane to agree to stay in this suite, alone, with him. “I-I came in to find my brush. You were in the shower and I thought I could get it and be gone. I’m sorry.”

Chris’ jaw was clenched tight. He stared at her, reading her expression. He glanced down and saw the brush in her hand and released his grip on her. “Turn around,” he ordered.

Teresa obediently did as instructed. Chris snatched black silk pajama pants from the bed and slipped them on. He sighed and regarded his intruder. She was trembling—the baggy satin pajamas she wore disguised most of her quaking—but she was undoubtedly scared out of her wits. He felt sorry for her and made an effort to soften his voice. “You can turn around now,” he murmured.

Teresa turned slowly and looked to Chris. The pants didn’t help; the previous image of him wet and naked was burned into her brain. She was on the verge of tears as she made her way to the door.

“Teresa.”

His tone was once again kind, his voice silky smooth. She stopped just inside the doorway unsure of what he’d say.

“Goodnight.”

His softer tone took her by surprise. “Goodnight,” she croaked and fled the room.

Chris sighed and stared at the spot in which she’d stood. He chastised himself for the harsh treatment he’d subjected her to and resolved to be more considerate in the future.

﴿   ﴾

Teresa was famished. She shuffled from her bedroom and wandered into the dining room, following a delicious aroma that made her mouth water. He was there, still in his pajama bottoms, reclining in his chair with his legs propped up on the corner of the table, reading the morning newspaper. How was it possible to look that good right out of bed?

Christian lowered his paper and returned his feet to the floor. Sitting erect again, he smiled warmly. “Good morning,” he greeted.

“Good morning,” she murmured. Did the man not own any shirts?

“I didn’t know what you liked for breakfast so I took the liberty of ordering one of everything.”

“Of course you did,”
she thought. “It smells wonderful,” she croaked as she drew near and surveyed the assortment of breakfast foods laid out on the table.

Christian’s smile broadened. Her voice was raspy in the morning.

“What?” she asked self-consciously, uncertain of the reason for his smile.

Chris chuckled. “Nothing,” he said. “It’s just that your voice is”—he shrugged—“squeaky. It’s-kind of cute.”

Teresa blushed.

Chris chuckled and returned his attention to his newspaper. “Help yourself.”

Teresa took a crepe, glanced in Chris’ direction and then took two more. She added ham and eggs and a cornetti—the Italian version of a croissant.

Chris peered over his paper with some amusement. “Hungry much?”

Teresa shrugged and swallowed her eggs quickly. “Stressful situations make me hungry,” she offered with a shrug.

Chris nodded as he sipped his coffee and held the paper aloft. He pretended to read while he sneaked peeks at her. She was doing the same. Chris was better at it though. She never suspected he was watching her. His interest in Teresa was purely platonic. A romantic relationship was the furthest thing from his mind. He was understandably still raw from losing Deanna.

Teresa sneaked looks at Chris when she thought he wasn’t watching. Despite the Hell he’d put her through, he could actually be quite charming when he wasn’t acting like a Neanderthal. Her eye was drawn to his muscular arms and chest. He was handsome and sexy and probably—physically speaking—the most perfect man she’d ever seen. She shook her head. And she’d seen enough of him to know.

“Sleep well?”

Teresa jumped at the sound of his voice. It was smooth, but she’d been so engrossed in her thoughts that the sudden breaking of the silence startled her.

Chris suppressed a laugh at her reaction.

“Yes, thank you. Better than I expected.”

Chris nodded and placed his newspaper on the table. “I’m getting in the shower,” he announced as he excused himself. “Can I expect your company as well?” Teresa turned at least three shades of red. “Just asking,” he smiled.

The young woman heard the door to the bedroom close and breathed a sigh of relief. The duo had managed to remain civil to each other for nearly half an hour—that had to be some sort of record. She smiled when she thought about how he’d looked when she came into the room. His long hair had a sort of shaggy, bedhead look to it. His bangs hung down almost to his eyes which were the most striking shade of blue she’d ever seen. She liked his scruff. When he was angry, it made him appear sinister, but when he wasn’t angry, he was gorgeous.

Teresa tried to remember the news reports and what he’d looked like clean-shaven, but decided she liked him this way—for now. He oozed sex appeal from every pore and she wondered if he knew it. He had attributes that most women fantasized about: a broad chest and trim waist, killer abs and a nice ass. That was just the physical. There was a charming, compassionate man hidden underneath the armor he wore—that’s what made him sexy in her mind.

A buzzing sound intruded into her ruminations. Teresa looked around for the phone responsible for the noise and noticed that Chris’ newspaper was moving slightly. She lifted the paper and found his iPhone. She picked up the device and considered taking it to him, but thought better of it. She had no desire to see him naked—well, that wasn’t entirely true—but she didn’t dare risk his temper again.

Glancing at the screen, Teresa saw an incoming text message from someone named Emilio. Thinking the message might be about James she shot a cautious look toward the door and opened the message:

Do you still wish me to hold Townsend?

                                                    -E

             Teresa couldn’t believe what she was seeing. He lied to her! He led her to believe the police were holding James as a suspect, but it was him all along. What else did he lie about? Had James’ room really been sealed? He’d tricked her into staying in this suite last night, she was sure of that. What was that all about? Did he plan to sully her reputation? Arrogant bastard! Teresa pressed the reply option and texted Emilio:

No. Release him!

 

She tossed the phone onto the table and rushed to her bedroom to get dressed. She intended to retrieve James and get the hell away from this city—away from him.

﴿   ﴾

Chris stepped from the master bedroom wearing jeans, a black, form-fitting tee and black leather moto jacket. “Teresa, have you seen my phone?” There was no answer. “Teresa?”

He stepped into the dining room and spied his phone lying on the table. “I thought we’d go to the racetrack today and try to sort out this mess with the race,” he called as he strode over and picked up the iPhone. “Teresa!” Chris pressed his index finger to the home button and read the last incoming message and his apparent reply. “Damn,” he whispered.

The investigator hurried to Teresa’s bedroom and rapped on the door. There was no answer. “Teresa?” He opened the door to find her and her belongings gone. Christian ran from the suite to the elevator and pressed his knuckle to the down button. Why did fifty-eight seconds always seem like an eternity when you were in a terrible hurry?

The elevator doors parted and Chris thumbed the lobby button, imploring Mr. Otis’ invention to go faster. He reached the ground floor and raced to the desk. He had no time for pleasantries or long-winded explanations.

“Signorina Galanos?”

Serge pointed to the curb where Teresa stood awaiting a taxi.

Chris cursed softly and bolted for the entrance.

﴿   ﴾

Christian pushed past other guests and reached the spot where she stood with her suitcase. “Teresa!”

“Don’t talk to me! Don’t even say my name,” she ordered.

“Let me explain…”

The valet chose that moment to interrupt. “Do you wish your car, signore?”

Chris looked at the man like he’d grown another nose. “What!? Yes, fine. Bring the car.” He turned his attention back to Teresa. “Please, just hear me out.”

She whirled to face him. “I don’t want your absurd explanations. I want your head on a stick!”

“I know. I’m sorry. Give me a chance to explain.”

“I don’t want your stupid explanations. I don’t even want to hear your voice.”

“Look, I can’t explain it, but I…”

Chris’ voice trailed off as an Iveco van with police markings ground to a halt near the curb. The rear door slid open and two policemen exited. They approached Teresa and took her by the arms, informing her in Italian that she was to accompany them to the police station. She was going to be questioned in conjunction with the Gran Premio conspiracy.

“Unhand me,” demanded Teresa. “How dare you treat me like this!” When the police ignored Teresa’s warning, she craned her neck to address Chris. “Don’t just stand there. Do something!”

Chris tried to intervene on Teresa’s behalf, but the police told him to step back or they would arrest him, too.

The Italian cops dragged Teresa into the waiting van and sped away.

Chris’ fingers flew over the iPhone’s touch screen.

“Pron…”

Chris cut Emilio short. “Did you send your men to pick up Teresa Galanos?”

“Chris?”

“Did you send your men to pick up Teresa Galanos?” repeated Christian impatiently.

No, I did not.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” Chris drew his Glock from the waistband of his jeans as the valet pulled up in the Ferrari. He yanked the man out of the car and tossed the Glock onto the passenger seat as he slid behind the wheel. “They have her, Emilio. Someone’s kidnapped Teresa Galanos. Stay with me, ‘cause I’m gonna need your help.” The valet stared agog as Chris dropped the phone onto the seat next to the gun and squealed away from the curb.

The thing about having a six hundred plus horsepower Ferrari was it needed open road to fully utilize all that power. Traffic in Milan was heavy and the gran turismo was bogged down in it. Chris had the van in sight and called out his progress through the city so Emilio could track him. A delivery van cut across Chris’ path and he ground to a halt. Chris blew his horn impatiently and shouted in Italian for the man to move out of the way. The driver complied, but not before gesturing and hurling obscenities at Chris. There was now considerably more distance between the Iveco and the Ferrari.

“They’re traveling east on Via Rombon now,” Chris called out.

Emelio’s voice crackled over the speaker. “They may be heading toward Parco Lambo.”

Traffic and the urban landscape began thinning out and Chris put the gran turismo’s horsepower to good use. He weaved his way through traffic covering the distance between him and the kidnappers quickly. Chris flashed past the Iveco, returning to his lane and narrowly missing a Fiat coming from the opposite direction. With about a three-hundred-meter lead, Chris slammed on the brakes. The Ferrari ground to a halt near the park. Chris grabbed the phone and the Glock as he bailed from the car.

“Emilio!”

“Sì.” The man’s voice was tense.

“I’m near the park. Send your men. I don’t think this will go down without a fight.” Chris tossed the phone onto the driver’s seat and took his stance. The van rounded a corner and showed no sign of slowing down. Chris took aim and squeezed the trigger. He fired two warning shots into the front grille of the Iveco, but the kidnappers were not deterred.

Christian fired three more shots. Every shot blasted through the windshield and found their mark. The driver slumped over the wheel and the van careened out of control, crossing into a field and coming to rest thirty meters from the road. Chris approached cautiously, aiming the Glock 22 at the van. The rear door flew open and the two fake cops staggered out of the Iveco. One held Teresa by the arm. He had a gun aimed at her head and shouted at Chris in Italian, ordering him to drop his weapon.

“I don’t think so,” returned Chris in an even tone. “You’ve got two seconds before I put a round right through your skull.”

The kidnapper cursed and tightened the grip on his pistol.

“One second,” muttered Chris

A shot rang out and Teresa screamed. The man that had been holding her fell to the ground with a soft thud. His eyes were frozen into a lifeless stare. There was a small hole in the center of his forehead. The man’s partner made a move to grab the woman to use her as a human shield.

Teresa narrowed her eyes at the would-be abductor. “Don’t you touch me!” Her warning didn’t dissuade him and she kicked him, hard, in his groin. The man doubled over. He went down cradling his manhood and writhing in pain.

Chris lowered his weapon and ran to where Teresa stood. “You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she said in an icy tone. “No thanks to you.”

Chris knelt down near the man Teresa had kicked. “You really haven’t grasped the simple concept of gratitude, have you?”

“Gratitude!? I’m supposed to thank you for shooting the driver? You nearly got me killed, you idiot!”

“I’m not that lucky,” he shot back sarcastically, grabbing a handful of the man’s hair.

“Would you have preferred taking your chances with Larry, Curly and Moe?”

“I’d rather you step off a cliff,” she huffed

The kidnapper protested Chris’ treatment of him, hurling obscenities at the American.

Chris ignored him and glared at Teresa. “Are you always this rude or is this just an exceptional couple of days for you?”

Teresa huffed and turned her back to him as the kidnapper spouted off again.

Chris scowled and looked at the man. “Stai zitto! Can’t you see I’m talking here? That’s very rude! You wanna talk? Tell me who hired you? Why did you kidnap this woman?” He repeated the questions in Italian, but the man just glared at him. “So now you have nothing to say,” he grumbled. Chris removed the man’s belt and used it to secure his hands. He stood and took Teresa by the arm. “Let’s go.”

Teresa pulled her arm away and glowered at him, her emerald eyes ablaze with anger. “You’re insane if you think I’m going anywhere with you!”

Chris glanced around to assess the scene. Other motorists had stopped and were getting out of their cars. Some talked into cell phones. “Look, your highness, I don’t have time to discuss this rationally with you. We need to go.” He waved the Glock in the direction of the Ferrari. “Move it”

Teresa folded her arms and presented her back to him. “No.”

“Either you get in that car or I’m going to pick you up and put you there!”

She turned back to him with a defiant look. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Chris growled. He stormed toward Teresa and hoisted the exasperating woman over his shoulder, trudging back to the Ferrari as she slapped at his back.

“Put me down you Neanderthal!”

At the car, Chris returned her to her feet and opened the passenger door. “Get in.”

Teresa sighed. “I don’t think I’ll fit in there with you and your ego.”

Chris leveled his gaze at her. His eyes were dark again with his anger. She decided not to push him any further and took her seat. He slammed the door and rounded the car slipping into the driver’s side. He recovered his cell phone and tucked the Glock underneath the seat. The Ferrari squealed away as two police cars approached from the other direction with sirens blaring. Chris put the phone to his ear. “Melio?”

“Chris, thank God! What has happened?”

“Two dead, one in less than perfect condition.” His eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. “The police just arrived.”

“Where are you going?”

“Somewhere safe, I’ll call you later.” Chris ended the call and placed the phone on the console.

“Where are you taking me?” demanded Teresa.

“Someplace where I can guarantee your safety.”

“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me,” she declared.

Chris shook his head and shot her a sarcastic look. “Where does the attitude come from? You can’t seem to make it through the day without being trampled or kidnapped.”

“Keep your eyes on the road,” she demanded.

Chris glanced at the road ahead and then back to her. “Could you at least try to keep yourself out of trouble?”

“All of my troubles started the day I met you,” she shot back. “And when I say you’re a Neanderthal, I mean that you are the most brutish, egotistical, ill-mannered”—she struggled for just the right word—”swine…I have ever met in my life!”

“And those are just my good points,” Chris remarked dryly.

﴿   ﴾

Chris guided the Ferrari through the winding roads of the hill country. Forty-two minutes later, he pulled off the road and stopped at the gate of an impressive villa. He punched in a code and the motorized gate swung slowly to the right. When there was enough clearance, Chris eased the gran turismo through the opening and drove the short distance to the portico.

The large Mediterranean style home featured a tiled roof, stucco facade and a columned entrance with a breathtaking view of the Alps.

“What is this place?” she asked, stepping from the car.

Chris walked past her to the front door. “My home.”

Teresa gawked at him. “You have a house here and had the nerve to nearly put me on the street last night?”

“Don’t be such a cry baby,” he said, unlocking the door.

Teresa huffed as she followed him into the house. “I am not a”—her breath caught in her throat when she stepped into the foyer—“cry baby.”

The interior of the villa was tastefully decorated with rich fabrics in warm colors of red, gold and mocha. A terra-cotta staircase, tiled in the multi-shaded colors famous in the Lombardy Region, lay ahead. An alcove to the right provided space for the music room with a baby grand piano and comfortable seating. To the left, Teresa saw a two-story living room with overstuffed furniture and a cozy fireplace.

“Follow me, I’ll show you where you can freshen up,” he said. He led her upstairs to one of the bedrooms. “You can use this room.”

Teresa stepped past him. “Yours?” she asked, looking back at him.

A slight nod.

Chris was different here. His mood was gloomy, almost morose. He was vulnerable. The change in his demeanor coincided with the exact moment they crossed the threshold of this house. Chris stood at the doorway watching her warily with those intense blue eyes as she circled the room, taking in her surroundings. Chris’ eyes were softer, fringed with long, dark lashes. She was so furious at him earlier, so incensed by his accusations and brutish behavior, that she forgot how absolutely gorgeous he was. The man had an aura about him that drew her to him like matter into a vortex—it was disconcerting.

“It’s-very nice,” Teresa said. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be downstairs,” Chris murmured. With that he turned and closed the door.

Teresa stared at the portal for a moment. What was it about this place that disturbed him? She wandered the bedroom again, looking about. The room was comfortable and had its own bathroom.

Teresa glanced in the direction of the door and pulled open one of the desk drawers. Inside was a picture frame turned upside down. She picked it up, turning it over in her hands. A picture of Chris and young woman with auburn hair and emerald eyes smiled back at her. This was Deanna. She had been quite lovely. Teresa understood now. This house held memories of Deanna—painful memories he didn’t want to face. That’s why he went to the Savoia. Being here was unpleasant for him. Teresa replaced the picture and closed the drawer.

She sighed as she lay on the bed and replayed the events of today in her mind. She didn’t know who those men were or what they were after. She’d let her guard down. One thing was certain. If Christian Karas hadn’t come to her aid, she might have been killed. He was like a brave and faithful knight who kept riding to her rescue.

﴿   ﴾

The refrigerator and pantry had been stocked for Chris’ visit and he set about making mushroom and cheese omelettes for them. When Teresa didn’t come down right away, he brought the food to her on a tray. He tapped at her door, but received no reply.

Chris quietly opened the door and peeked in to see her curled up on the bed fast asleep. He set the tray on the dresser and removed an afghan from a nearby chair. He covered Teresa with the afghan. “Sleep well,” he murmured.

﴿   ﴾

Teresa awoke to the sound of piano music drifting up from downstairs. The sound slowly entered her consciousness and roused her. She recognized the piece. It was “Clair de Lune”, one of her favorites. Teresa fingered the afghan and smiled, realizing Chris must have covered her with the blanket.

Teresa noticed the tray on the dresser and set the afghan aside. She left the bed, picking at a piece of the omelette. It was cold, but tasty. By the angle of the sun outside her window, Teresa guessed it was late afternoon. She left the room and took the stairs to the ground floor.

Chris stopped playing when he saw her on the stair.

“I’m sorry,” she offered softly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your playing.”

Chris released a measured breath. “It’s all right,” he replied. “I’m through.”

“Please keep playing.”

Chris shook his head and frowned. “I prefer not to have an audience.”

Teresa took a seat in one of the chairs facing the piano. “Please.”

Chris stared, unblinking at the keys and released a slow, steady breath. After a long moment he resumed his playing. Teresa noted the passion he put into the arrangement. He completely surrendered himself to the music. It struck her that he was the instrument and the piano merely the amplifier. Then she noticed the tear that tracked down his cheek.

Chris stopped abruptly and stood to leave. He could no longer guarantee his emotions and didn’t wish to have a meltdown in front of Teresa Galanos.

Teresa leaped to her feet and intercepted Chris before he could escape. She placed her hands gently on his chest to halt his progress. She felt compassion for him. She understood the torment he felt at losing Deanna. This kind of pain could only be caused by ultimate heartache. She sensed his self-loathing and realized he felt guilty, probably because he couldn’t save Deanna from her fate.

She leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. Chris stood rigid with his arms at his sides, jaw clenched, trying to hold his emotions in check.

“Don’t say anything,” she prefaced. “Just listen.”

Teresa took a deep breath. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through and the loss you’ve endured. I know losing Deanna was probably the most horrific thing you’ve ever faced. I can see that you loved her with all of your heart, mind, and soul. You probably feel guilty, but you shouldn’t. I can see what it’s done to you. You hide behind your bravado because you don’t want the world to see your pain and so you keep everything bottled up inside of you.”

“You probably don’t speak with others about her, but you need to.” Teresa paused and smiled. “You have to let yourself tell people the funny stories, the things that drove you mad and the endless reasons why you loved her. It’s all part of the healing process and you need that in order to move on.”

“You have to believe me when I tell you that you are a beautiful man with a kind and gentle heart. I’ve seen a glimpse of the real Christian, the one hidden from public view behind the titanium armor. Don’t let your grief consume you and destroy the best parts of who you are.”

Teresa heaved a sigh and gave him a self-conscious smile then released her hold on him. “I…thought you needed to hear that,” she murmured.

Chris breathed deeply, fighting to master the emotions that had threatened to wreak havoc on him. Emerald eyes that were so much like Deanna’s, stared back at him. In them, he found refuge, comfort, and compassion.

Teresa searched his eyes for some sense of what he was feeling. His defenses were finally down and she saw trust there…and acceptance.

Chris offered a weak smile as he stared back at her. “Thank you,” was all he could manage at the moment.

Teresa was relieved by his response. “I’d like to think that we can be friends.”

“I’d like that.”

Teresa smiled in reply. “James is going to be wondering where I am.”

Chris’ face clouded over.

Teresa grimaced. “Tell me,” she said.

Chris took her hand in his and led her to the living room. He broke the news as gently as possible. “Emilio phoned while you were asleep.”  James…has been murdered.”

Tears filled the young woman’s eyes. “Oh my God!” She sank into a chair. “It’s my fault,” she muttered and began to cry.

“Your fault? Why would it be your fault?”

“I saw…the text from…your friend. I was so angry that you lied to me,” she sobbed, “that I texted him back…to tell him to release James.”

“Teresa, you are not to blame. Those men would have killed James anyway and possibly you with him?”

The couple was silent for some time with Chris holding her hands in his. Teresa was first to break the silence. “Why did you keep insisting that James was my boyfriend?” she sniffed.

“It was…the way he looked at you.”

“I don’t…”

“He was in love with you, Teresa. I’m surprised you never saw it.”

Teresa was stunned. “I-I never thought of him in that way. He was always Deanna’s father. I only started calling him James—at his insistence—when I invested in Deanna’s Dream. Do you think James did it—do you think he rigged the race?”

Chris shrugged. “I didn’t think so at first, but now I’m not sure. He was obviously mixed up in something that got him killed and that also put your life in danger.”

“Why did you have your friend hold James if you thought he was innocent?”

Chris sighed and stared at his hands. “I started to feel—very protective of you,” he explained, returning his gaze to her. “I only meant to keep him busy ‘til I could figure out what was going on.”

Teresa chuckled in spite of herself. “You haven’t figured anything out,” she sniffed. “What kind of detective are you?”

Chris flashed a wry grin. “I’ve been a little distracted.”

Teresa buried her head into the curve of Chris’ shoulder, realizing he meant her.

“We’re leaving Italy tomorrow morning,” he whispered. “I’m taking you back to New

York and I don’t want an argument.”

Teresa nodded. “Okay.”

“I need to make the arrangements.” Chris excused himself and used his cell to charter a flight back to the states. To maintain a low profile, they would travel under assumed names and avoid KarasCorp aircraft and commercial flights. Once the arrangements were made, he joined Teresa in the living room.

“Everything…okay?”

Chris nodded. “Signore e Signora Roberto Cavallo will leave for New York first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Hmm, tell me Signore Cavallo, how are you going to explain our lack of passports?”

“We’ll have new ones by the time we board the plane in the morning?”

Teresa blinked back her surprise. “How did you…?”

Chris held up his hand. “It’s better if you don’t ask.”

Teresa’s right eyebrow shot up in response, but refrained from asking anymore questions. During their mutual silence, she noticed him staring at her with an amused smile and groaned her displeasure. “I probably look horrible.”

Her eyes were bright and her nose slightly red from crying, but Chris shook his head. “No, you, uh, you look good.”

Teresa giggled. “You’re a terrible liar, you know.”

Chris grinned and shrugged. “Hungry?”

“Starving,” she admitted. “Will you make me another omelette? The first one got cold.”

Chris held out his hand and, with a nod of his head, indicated the way to the kitchen. “Sure c’mon.”

Christian opened a bottle of wine and set about making the omelettes. Teresa was impressed with his culinary skill. She laughed and clapped her hands when he flipped the first omelette into the air and it landed perfectly into the skillet. “You couldn’t do that again to save your life,” she quipped.

Chris made a show of adding the ingredients to the pan, folded the bubbling mixture into another perfect omelette and launching the thing into the air. The egg concoction flew high and seemed to hang in mid-air for a moment before landing on the floor with a splat. Teresa erupted into laughter, nearly falling off of the bar stool.

Chris stared at the mess. And shook his head ruefully. “Shit. Well that was a total fail.” He looked to Teresa and offered a sheepish shrug.

Teresa wiped the tears from her eyes and grabbed a handful of paper towels. “I’ll take care of this, Bobby Flay. You make another one.”

Christian whipped up another of the fluffy creations. The couple took their plates and wine and moved to the living room. Teresa took a seat while Chris started a fire. As they ate, they talked. Chris told her about Deanna. She noted the look of adoration in his eyes as he told her the funny stories, the things that drove him mad, and the endless reasons why he loved her. The first rays of daylight entered the room and Chris smiled with the realization that they’d talked through the night.

The couple cleaned up the dishes and closed themselves into their respective rooms to shower. Teresa stepped from the bathroom intending to wear the same clothes she had on before. She found, instead, that Chris had left clothes on the bed that had obviously belonged to Deanna. Teresa knew how difficult that must have been for him.

﴿   ﴾

At JFK, Chris saw Teresa safely to the limousine that would take her home while the crew serviced the plane for his return to California. She smiled forlornly, hating to say goodbye.

Chris kissed her forehead and flashed a lopsided grin. “Until next time…Princess.”

Teresa giggled, suddenly liking his use of the title. This could be the start of something beautiful. She returned a gracious nod and radiant smile to him. “Until then, Sir Knight.”

Ҝ

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