She took her time showering, hoping Tasha would be gone by the time she dressed, although she knew it was unlikely. Her cousin was tenacious when there was a man in the picture, and apparently the authorities had made the supreme mistake of sending a handsome officer. She couldn't imagine where the palazzo chef, Enrico, had disappeared to, but a distinct chill was working its way down her spine in spite of the hot shower. Byron was certain that someone was introducing poison into the food. Could Enrico's disappearance have something to do with that?
She turned her face up to the hot water spray above her head. Byron had killed her assailant. She was certain he had. And the body had been dropped on the cliffs, carelessly, with little thought of what the authorities might think. What did she think? She knew things others didn't. She could do things others couldn't. And she knew Byron wasn't quite human. She accepted it as she accepted it in herself, yet he had killed easily, swiftly, without hesitation. He claimed he hadn't been suspicious of Enrico. Had he found evidence linking Enrico to the poison?
For a moment Antonietta leaned her head against the shower tile, allowing the spray to pour over her. Byron was many things she didn't quite understand, but he would not have murdered Enrico. She was not going to allow Tasha, with all her drama, to make her suspicious. With a little sigh she turned off the hot water and dried the beads of water from her skin. The towel lingered over the one spot on her breast that felt hot and throbbed for attention. She dressed with great care, braided the thick mass of hair, and swirled it into an intricate knot to give her more height. To give her added confidence.
Tasha was still in her bedroom. Antonietta could smell her distinctive perfume and hear the continual rustle of clothing. Tasha was not a patient or restful person, and waiting would have been difficult for her. Antonietta forced a smile. "You're still here. It must be important."
"Finally! You could have hurried, Toni." Tasha caught her arm. "This is important, you don't know how important. You have to talk to Nonno. I must be allowed in the room when the authorities return to question you."
"I'll speak to him, Tasha," Antonietta agreed.
There was a moment of silence while Tasha searched for the right words. "Don't get upset with me. You know I always look out for you. You're not nearly as worldly as I am, although, of course, you're much older."
"Have you forgotten we share the same birthday?"
Tasha hissed out a soft whisper of aggravation. "I don't know you in this mood, Toni. Do you see? Already he is driving a wedge between you and your family!"
"I'm not having this conversation with you, Tasha. I don't interfere in your personal life, no matter how bizarre I think it. All I ask is the same respect. What I do is my business, no one else's. Don't you dare bring up Byron to the rest of the family."
"Are you really going to talk to Nonno for me?" Tasha asked.
"Yes, I said I would."
A knock on the door was loud. Antonietta recognized Marita's distinctive way of announcing herself. Marita tried very hard to come across with authority and importance, even in minor things. "Come in, Marita." In another few minutes, all of her cousins would be crowding into her room.
"My husband, Franco, has sent me out of concern for your well-being, Antonietta." Marita made the announcement formal and loud. "You have never slept this long in all the time we can recall."
"You've been married to Franco for ten years, Marita," Tasha said with exasperation, "we know he's your husband. Do you have to announce it every time you walk into a room? You do have your own identity. If you'd just see Dr. Venshrank, you wouldn't need to identify so strongly with Franco."
Marita stuck her chin in the air. "Just because I've managed to stay married and happy for ten years and you've gone through two husbands and three fiances doesn't mean I need to see your doctor, Tasha. Franco is a good man, and I'm proud to be his wife. In any case, it reminds you I am a member of the family, too, if only by marriage."
"You are so insecure," Tasha said, rolling her eyes in disgust. "You've been in the family for ten long years, you have two children, and you'd think you'd get over the fact that you had totally inferior breeding and no social status whatsoever when Franco found you. We all have."
"Don't start, you two. I have to speak with Signora Helena immediately and find out what is happening, or you may not have food for the next few days." Antonietta was exasperated with the both of them, grown women always feuding.
"Marita would live just fine for a day or two, but I wouldn't survive." Tasha patted her flat stomach lovingly.
Marita nearly screamed in frustration. "My stomach is a badge of courage, two bambini, and you with none."
"Enough!" Antonietta nearly yelled it. "I don't want you to ever say that again to Tasha in my presence, Marita."
"I'm sorry, forgive me, Tasha. Toni is right, I shouldn't have said such a thing."
"I don't pay attention to anything you say," Tasha said belligerently, but her voice trembled.
Marita turned her attention to Antonietta. "Toni, I really needed to talk to you about Franco. He's in a meeting with Nonno. I don't want you to interrupt them. You must see he deserves another chance. It is time Nonno realized his worth and paid him accordingly. He should be vice president and respected by all."
"You know I have no say in what Nonno's decisions arc, Marita."
"Just promise me not to ruin Franco's chance. I must insist, Antonietta. You know he works hard and deserves so much more than Nonno gives him. One little mistake should be forgiven."
"It wasn't a little mistake, as you well know, Marita. You pushed him until he was bitter and angry and wanting your respect. He betrayed his family and our company. He was lucky charges weren't brought against him and that Nonno listened to Tasha's and my pleas to allow him to stay here. If you're pushing him again to do something he will later regret, think hard, Marita. Nonno won't forgive another betrayal, not even for the children, and Marita, neither will I."
"He turned down a huge offer from Christopher's company to join with them. A merger would be good for both companies. Franco has proved his loyalty even though he knows the merger would make us all wealthy."
Antonietta sighed. "We are wealthy already, Marita, and there is no advantage to our company from a merger, only on the Demonesini side. You know very well Christopher's father even tried to court me in hopes of a merger."
"The families will merge when Christopher marries Tasha."
A loud crash followed by a bloodcurdling scream of pain interrupted the two women. There was no mistaking a child's continuous scream of agony. Tasha turned toward the sound instantly. "That's little Margurite!" She was already racing from the room as she called out the warning.
The screams emerging from the lower story were appalling. Antonietta had never heard anything like it. "Something is really wrong with Margurite."
"She just wants attention." Marita pressed her hands over her ears. "Tasha should make her stop that noise, no Scarletti should make such a scene. That's Tasha's influence. If Franco hears her, he'll rush to her side instead of keeping his mind on business as he should!" But she was running even as she complained.
Antonietta listened to her tone, not the words. Marita was terrified, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Antonietta took her hand as they hurried down the wide hall toward the sound of the screams. She had to slow down on the sweeping staircase, not wanting to chance a misstep. Marita suddenly pulled her hand away, pressing back against the wall.
Antonietta could hear Tasha soothing the six-year-old girl. "There, there, Toni's here now, and she'll see to it that the doctor comes. He'll fix you right up. Your madre is here. It's going to be all right now." Antonietta judged by the direction of the voice that Tasha was sitting on the floor beside the child right at the bottom of the stairway. She stepped cautiously off the last stair and stopped walking, careful not to trip over them.
Marita screamed, a terrible sound, adding to Margurite's cries of pain. There was a thud as her body crashed to the floor.
"What is it? What happened to her, Tasha?"
"Don't mind Marita. She fainted like she always does in a crisis. Here, Toni." Tasha caught her hand and guided her to the floor beside the crying child. Already the screams were becoming sobs as Margurite tried to regain control. "It's her right leg. Tell me what you think. Hold still, piccola, it will take only a moment to examine you, and Antonietta is always so gentle. Your madre is fine. She just fainted. You've seen her do that before." Tasha kissed the curly head over and over, brushing at the tears running down the little face. "Watch yourself, Toni, there's rubble everywhere."
Antonietta ran her hands gently over the thin leg. Her breath caught in her lungs when she felt the jagged bone protruding. "Tasha is right, cara mia, we need the doctor immediately for you. You're so brave to stay here with Tasha." She raised her voice, knowing her assistant would be close, drawn by the screams. "Justine! We must have an ambulance at once." Justine Travis had been her assistant for thirteen years, and she acted as her eyes and ears in the ever-changing household.
"Right away, Miss Scarletti!" Justine answered from where she hovered in the hallway. "Helena is calling straightaway."
"Tell them to hurry, it's most urgent!" Antonietta kept her voice calm, not wanting to alarm Margurite. "Try to wake Marita. And get Franco in here."
Marita moaned. "Bambina. Mia bambino. How could this happen?" She kept her face averted, allowing Helena to help her to her feet. "There's so much blood, and the bone. She'll be crippled for life."
"Marita!" Tasha hissed her name. "That's not helping. Go to Vincente. He must be frightened by Margurite's cries. Franco will attend her."
"Yes, yes, you're right, Tasha." Marita pressed a hand to her stomach, turned her head, and was sick. "
Grazie, take care of my poor bambina."
Franco gathered Tasha and his daughter into his arms. "Helena, take Marita up to the room. She's ill, and this is too much for her."
Helena complied, wrapping her arm around Marita while one of the maids immediately began to clean the floor.
Tasha rocked back and forth in an effort to soothe both the child and herself. "Do something Toni, I can't stand to see her in such pain," Tasha begged in a whisper. "How did such a thing happen?"
"Hurry, Toni, take the pain from her," Franco urged.
"Describe for me what you see."
"The Scarletti coat of arms above Nonno 's door has come down. Didn't we just have that inspected and secured? Margurite was coming out of Nonno 's room, and it came right down on her. She could have been killed." There was a sob as well as anger in Tasha's voice. "She went to visit Nonno but he was gone."
Antonietta stiffened. The palazzo was undergoing repairs, and she had been with the inspectors when they had gone through her grandfather's wing of the house. She knew they had paid particular attention to the Scarletti coat of arms, due to the heavy weight of it. "Don't touch anything. We'll let your policeman take a look around."
All at once the home Antonietta loved, the home with which she was so familiar, took on a sinister atmosphere.
Margurite lay against Tasha, keening her distress softly while her father caressed her hair and face, murmuring how much he loved her. Tasha's fingers tightened around Antonietta. "Do something, take her pain away, Toni. Do it right now, I can't stand her being in so much pain."
"The ambulance will be here soon," Antonietta whispered back, but her hands were still on the little leg. She took a deep breath and concentrated, blocking out the sounds of weeping, blocking out the overwhelming emotions of everyone in the room. She let everything flow through her, around her, finding the deep well inside of her where she could free the energy that was so strong, so much a part of her and her heritage.
Antonietta knew Byron Justicano was capable of healing because the ability to heal was also a part of her family legacy. She couldn't heal in the same way he did, but she could diagnose a problem, lessen the pain, and speed her people onto the path of recovery. She felt the heat building, spreading, moving through her body to her hands, to the child's leg.
Almost at once, Margurite became quieter, her sobs reduced to sniffs and small shudders. Antonietta felt most of the tension leave Tasha's body.
Franco leaned over and kissed his cousin. His face was wet with tears.
"Grazie, Toni. I wish I could do that." Tasha hugged Margurite closer to her.
"The ambulance is on the way, Antonietta," Justine said as she picked her way carefully through the mess. "I also notified the authorities. The bolts holding the Scarletti shield are completely sheared through. This was no accident." Before her employer could protest, she hastily reassured her. "Don't worry, I was careful not to touch anything and leave fingerprints. I've seen enough movies to know you're not supposed to do that." She crouched down close to Antonietta. Almost protectively. "This was no accident, and coming on the heels of last night, I don't think you should take any chances."
"I believe you're right, Justine," Antonietta agreed.
"Please give Joie Sanders a call and let her know I need an appointment. Ask if she would be willing to come here to the palazzo."
"I'll set it up immediately. Sanders is renowned for her security measures, but she's very hard to get. She might be able to recommend someone to us though. Shall I cancel your performance at the local charity event next week?"
Antonietta shook her head. "No, it's for a good cause. But I want Nonno protected, too; that's important, Justine. See to it that our security people keep a close eye on him until I can work something out with Sanders."
Don Giovanni hurried into the hall, his breathing heavy from trying to run. "What is it, what has she done? Franco, is she going to be all right?" His usual authoritative voice trembled.
"We'll take her to the hospital, Nonno, " Franco said gently. "They will fix up Margurite's leg in no time."
"Sit down, Nonno, " Tasha said, concerned. "Toni has taken some of the pain away, and Margurite is much more comfortable." Quickly she hugged the child's shoulders in reassurance. "You're so brave, cara mia. Isn't she brave, Toni?"
"Very brave." Antonietta kissed the top of the child's head, still keeping contact with the little leg in hopes of keeping the pain at bay.
The child fumbled until she managed to clutch Antonietta's sleeve. "Am I a true Scarletti then?"
Tasha made a single sound, turned her head to glare at Franco, angry that Marita's continual nagging made the child insecure. "You have always been a Scarletti, Margurite. You are brave and wonderful and a joy to us all. Isn't she, Toni? Franco?"
"Margurite, you are a Scarletti through and through," Antonietta agreed instantly.
"You have always been just like me, Margurite," Franco said, kissing the top of the child's head. "Hasn't she Nonno ?"
"You have your father's eyes and his sunny disposition," Don Giovanni assured.
"Signorina Scarletti, the ambulance is here," Helena announced. "This way." She waved the attendants through."
Grazie, Helena," Antonietta acknowledged. She trusted Justine to guide the medics around the debris and to the child. After an examination and a brief discussion with Franco, it was agreed they must move Margurite to the hospital where her leg could be properly looked after.
"Please make certain there is no pain," Tasha pleaded, hugging the child protectively. "We've waited a long time for you, and she's very frightened."
"We will see to it that she does not hurt more than necessary," the attendant assured. "We can give her pain medication to help while we move her."
Antonietta waited until Margurite was settled in the ambulance with her father and Tasha and was on her way to the hospital before attempting to sort out the damages. "Justine, make certain the area is cordoned off so no one touches anything and none of the maids attempt to clean this up before the police have a chance to take a look at everything." She knew her housekeeper was close by the faint perfume. "Helena, tell me of Enrico. What do you know of his disappearance?"
"Nothing, signorina, he was simply not in his room. Nothing has been taken, his clothes and personal belongings are there. He prepared today's menus last night, and we discussed what we needed for the kitchen so I could send the boy this morning. We had a glass of wine together about ten, and he retired to his apartment as he always does. This morning he did not appear to prepare the morning meal, and I sent one of the maids to check on him. He was not in his room. When she told me this, I immediately went to his room myself. I did not see anything out of place."
"Has anyone heard from him? Does he have a woman?"
"No." Helena's sigh was loud, and Antonietta could not turn down the volume. Everything seemed overly loud, even the sound of shoes on the highly polished floor. It was a bit distracting. She could hear insects buzzing and creaks and groans in the house. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and outside, the rain was steadily drizzling.
"Would he just go off like that? He's never done such a thing in all the years he's been with us. This is his home. Surely someone knows where he would have gone. His friends? Someone outside the palazzo."
"I'm sorry, signorina, but Enrico stayed only here. The people here are his family. This is his home. He didn't go other places," Helena insisted. "I know this to be true. Enrico told me often he preferred the palazzo. At night he sometimes wandered the grounds and looked up at the sculptures. He loved the architecture and felt it was a privilege to live in such a place."
"Have the grounds been searched? He could have become ill and is lying somewhere hurt."
"I should have thought of that, signorina," Helena said. "I'll have the servants search the grounds immediately."
"One of my cousins should have thought of it," Antonietta corrected. Sometimes she wondered what her family was thinking. That the palazzo magically ran itself? Not even Don Giovanni had thought to do a search of the grounds for poor Enrico. She could not imagine her chef had walked off leaving behind all of his possessions. "
Grazie, Helena, as soon as you hear anything, please let me know. Meanwhile, who do we have that can help out in the kitchen? I know you're already way too busy, and I don't want you to fill in. Justine can hire a temporary if we don't have an assistant that can manage."
"I'll move Alfredo up until Enrico returns," Helena said. "He's a decent chef and has worked with Enrico for the past seven years. He likes his way and is a bit difficult, taking to his bed with headaches and spasms, but I'm certain he'll do fine until Enrico returns. And my nephew, Esteben. You remember we hired him to work in the kitchen as an apprentice chef some time ago? He has been working out well. He can step into Alfredo's position for the time being."
"Are you certain, Helena? Alfredo will need someone to be fast and efficient. There were one or two complaints about Esteben. I thought he didn't care for the job."
"Oh, no, no, signorina. Esteben is most grateful for the job. He had the big date and wanted time off, and Enrico refused him. They had words, but Esteben was only trying to impress his
amore. He understands the importance of his work."
Antonietta nodded. "Justine, please tell the bookkeeper to compensate them accordingly."
"Yes, of course, I'll make a note of that. You really must go to your grandfather. He was very agitated. I don't know if he took his heart medication, but he was upset."
"Very well." Antonietta placed her hand lightly on Justine's arm. "Thank you for all you do for me, Justine. I hope you know I consider you invaluable, both as my friend and as my assistant."
"I know, Toni." Justine was less formal when they were alone. "I love this job and the palazzo. I love that I can travel all over the world with you. Most of all, you've become the family I never had, so it is mutual." She led with confidence, moving quickly around any object in their path, and Antonietta didn't hesitate to follow her. "I was appalled at the rumor that you were attacked. Is it so?"
Antonietta inclined her head. "Yes. If it weren't for Byron, Nonno
and I would both be lost. I have bruises from the struggle."
"Why would someone want to harm you or your grandfather?"
"Why would someone want to harm my parents?" The words slipped out before she could stop them, hung in the air between the women while they moved through the twisting hall toward the wing where the offices were located.
"I've never heard you say that," Justine said. "Not once. I thought the explosion was an accident. Wasn't it ruled an accident?"
"No." The single admission came out a whisper. No, it hadn't been an accident, but she would never admit it, not to herself, not to anyone else. Someone had rigged their yacht to blow in the open sea. The explosion hadn't managed to burn or sink all the evidence. A fishing boat had been close and managed to pluck a blind five-year-old girl from the water. Antonietta had never demanded to see the report, had never thought it was necessary. If the authorities couldn't find out who had destroyed her family, what could a child do? And when the child was grown, she had not wanted to look back.
"I'm calling Joie Sanders right away," Justine said, a hint of panic in her voice. "Do you think you're in immediate danger? I'm not leaving your side."
Antonietta caught the fierce, protective note in Justine's tone and found herself smiling. It was the exact same tone Tasha had used over Margurite.
"Don't worry, we'll get to the bottom of this," she assured. "I'll have plenty of protection. I'm more worried about the children now."
"How is she, Franco? Toni?" Don Giovanni asked anxiously. "Poor little Margurite. I should have gone with you all to the hospital."
" Nonno , there was no sense in all of us going. Franco and Tasha were already there and Marita, Justine and I made it a huge crowd. She's asleep, and Marita will stay with her through the night."
"The doctor thinks she will be able to come home tomorrow," Franco added. "There's no need to be upset."
Don Giovanni glared at his grandson. "Don't treat me like I'm an old man, Franco. I'm upset that someone broke into my home and tried to murder my granddaughter and me last night. And I'm upset that my baby great-granddaughter was injured in what probably wasn't an accident. And I'm upset that you're trying to steal my company out from under me."
Franco sighed and stalked across the room to pour himself a drink. "It's been a long evening, Nonno. I'm not certain I'm up to arguing. Toni, are you feeling all right after your horrible experience last night? You should have woken me up immediately. And then when you didn't wake up. You scared me."
"At least Franco is making sense now. Toni, don't go scaring us again," Don Giovanni said severely.
"I didn't choose to fight a man out on the cliffs, Nonno. I would have preferred my nice, warm bed." She tried to turn the pending argument aside with a joke. Franco was exhausted after the ordeal of seeing his child so injured. Don Giovanni was upset at himself for not having the strength to accompany his beloved great-granddaughter to the hospital. "I could use a drink, too, Franco." The moment she asked, her stomach lurched at the idea. "Just water, please."
"While you were sleeping up in your room, your cousin was threatening me. What do you think of that, Toni? My own grandson, a treacherous viper."
"You know very well I didn't threaten you, Nonno, " Franco objected.
" Nonno ," Antonietta said patiently, "Franco would never threaten you. Tell me why you're so upset. It isn't good for your heart."
Don Giovanni threw his hands into the air in disgust, nearly hitting his granddaughter with his wild gesture. "This talk of mergers. Of ousting me as president. That's the kind of loyalty this boy shows after I took him back. He utterly disgraced our name, sold out our family, and I welcomed him back to the fold, and yet once again he is the viper at my throat."
"I never said any of those things," Franco denied. "Toni, I never said any of that. I merely pointed out that if we disagreed over so large an issue, we should ask the rest of the family their opinions. And I've more than made up for past indiscretions. I've worked day and night for very little in return." He held up his hand to stop his grandfather's sputtering. "I know I deserved to be thrown out and to work for nothing to make up for the past, but I've done that. This is an entirely different matter. The family feels strongly on this issue of the merger."
Don Giovanni snarled his disgust. "You reason with him, Toni. How can he run a company if he's afraid of taking control? If he has to consult the rest of the family? What kind of leader would he be? Why, we'd lose the entire business in a month!"
"That's not fair, Nonno, you never once said there was a chance I would control the company. If I thought I had a chance - "
"What?" Don Giovanni demanded, "You'd do your job? You'd wait until I die and ruin everything I've ever worked for? You'd sell out to the pirate Demonesini? The demon seed?" He spat out the insult to his closest rival.
Antonietta intervened quickly. " Nonno , calm down, you're going to have a stroke if you keep this up. There is no way to oust you as president without my votes, and I would never do such a thing. Franco doesn't want to oust you either; he'd just like you to listen with an open mind to someone else's opinion besides your own."
She took the glass from Franco, her fingertips judging the amount of liquid to prevent spilling. Out of nowhere she became aware of Byron. He was close by. She could feel him. It was a strange sensation to know he had risen. He was no longer sleeping but moving steadily toward her, as if they were so connected she could know the moment he opened his eyes.
Good evening. Are you well? I have missed you.
She heard the words clearly. They brushed along the walls of her mind like tiny butterfly wings. Her muscles contracted, clenched in anticipation. In reaction. His voice was like velvet rubbing over her skin. She heard her cousin and grandfather arguing as if in the distance, but her body, her entire being, was acutely aware of Byron's approach.
It didn't startle her that he would continue to talk telepathically to her, but it was very unsettling to have such a physical reaction to the intimate feel of his voice. She reached for him in her mind, followed the path of his voice to find him. To feel him. To connect strongly as she needed.
The palazzo is in an uproar. There was a terrible accident. Poor little Margurite went to visit Nonno , and the family crest fell on her leg. She has a compound fracture and was taken to the hospital. Marita is there with her now. Justine thinks the bolts were sheared straight through. And our chef has gone missing.
There was a small silence. She found she was holding her breath.
I will be there soon, Antonietta. I know you are upset over young Margurite. I will visit her in the hospital late this night and see if I can aid her in some way.
She was in so much pain. Everyone is upset. I had the grounds searched for Enrico, but there is no sign of him.
Antonietta took a cautious sip of water, finding she was not in the least hungry for food or drink.
I do not like that your chef is still missing after what I found last night. Someone had to be feeding you poison over a period of time. You knew Enrico was missing last night? He was not in his room.
She didn't want to have this conversation with him. She wanted to know if he had thought of her. If he burned for her. If he woke up consumed with need for her.
Yes, I did.
He answered her thoughts in a smoldering tone.
And I still do. I cannot wait to be at your side. I must feed first. I wish to be at full strength when I come to the palazzo.
She found herself smiling right in the middle of her grandfather's and cousin's squabbling. Byron was gone, yet he wasn't entirely. She felt she had only to reach for him in her mind, and he would be with her. She hugged the thought to her, astonished that it mattered so much. Astonished that Byron mattered. Astonished that he could make her feel that everything would be all right.
"Are you paying attention, Toni?" Franco demanded. "This is becoming a serious issue, and Nonno has no choice but to address it. He may not want to pay me a decent salary, but he has to listen to reason."
"I don't have to listen to anyone, boy. I've guided our company through stormy waters more than once, and we've come out better than ever. There is no advantage on our side to this merger. If you were a true Scarletti, you would look deeper, look past the lure of fast money, and see what this offer is really about."
Antonietta deliberately stepped between her grandfather and cousin. "The Demonesini Company needs a bailout, and they're looking to us to do it, Franco. It's that simple. I've thoroughly investigated their company. They run on a very small cash flow, and they took a large loss when they lost one of their freighters."
Antonietta could feel the thick tension in the room. She turned her back on her grandfather and deliberately smiled at her cousin, determined to change the subject. "Franco, have you any idea where Enrico could have gone? Helena says he has no woman and rarely left the palazzo."
Franco shook his head. "I spoke to the servants and to the authorities when they came this morning. They were allowed to search Enrico's room."
A soft knock on the door heralded Helena's arrival. "Pardon me, but Signora Marita is on the phone, and young Margurite would like to say good night to her father. Signora Marita says Margurite is sleepy from the medicine, Signor Franco, and I'm afraid she will fall asleep if I ask her to wait for you to call back."
"No, no, Helena, you did the right thing, grazie.
Forgive me, Nonno, I know this meeting is important, but I must speak to mia bambina.
I don't want her to go to sleep without giving her my love."
"I understand completely," Don Giovanni said and waved him out of the room.
There was a moment of silence. "That is the one thing that makes that man endearing. I can't help but love him for that. I still cannot quite believe he betrayed us."
Antonietta slipped her hand onto her grandfather's arm. "Franco has many wonderful qualities, Nonno
; he just had the poor luck to fall deeply in love with a woman who is never satisfied."
As she spoke she thought of Byron. Wanting to touch him again. Wanting to feel the fluttering in her mind, in her stomach. What was he? A stranger with a commanding voice and a quiet, self-sufficient air, who had come out of the storm-drenched night when they needed him most. She had no idea where his home was, had no idea where he was staying. Even if he had another woman somewhere.
"Franco is strong-headed, Toni," Don Giovanni said. "He has ambition. And he has a greedy wife. That combination can be deadly."
" Nonno ," Antonietta tried desperately to keep her mind on the conversation. "Franco made a mistake, and he knows it. It was years ago, when he was young and impressionable. He was crazy about Marita and would do anything she said. Stefan Demonesini and Christopher certainly can be charming and persuasive. Franco simply fell into the trap of thinking they were his friends."
Don Giovanni sighed heavily and sat in a chair. "And Tasha has invited the serpent into our home."
"Nonno. " There was amusement in her voice. "You're being melodramatic. We grew up with Christopher. He played here as a child and has been at every one of our family events. He isn't a serpent, and he works very hard."
"Tasha doesn't have good sense. He isn't suited to her at all. And she knows how uncomfortable you are in his father's presence."
Antonietta could hear the concern and worry in her grandfather's voice. He sounded tired and even old. "I'm used to seeing him, Nonno
; he's at every charity event and every function we attend. He will always see me as the woman who spurned his advances when every other woman was thrilled to be at his side."
"He offered marriage," Don Giovanni reminded, hearing the note of distaste in her voice. "You always thought he was after your money, but he had plenty. Why didn't you ever think it was a genuine offer?"
How could she explain an aversion that made no sense? "I thought I was scarred, overweight, and ugly, Nonno, it never occurred to me a man would want me for me."
"That's utter nonsense!"
"But it was how I felt at the time. I was very insecure."
The housekeeper knocked politely on the door a second time. "Signorina Scarletti? The authorities are here, and they are demanding to speak with you. I've shown them into the garden room."
"Thank you, Helena. I will come immediately."
"Signorina Tasha is entertaining the men as we speak." Although she spoke in the most even of tones, it wasn't difficult to pick up on her alarm and dismay at leaving Tasha alone with the authorities. Tasha was unpredictable, and the entire family and every one of the servants knew it.
"I didn't get a chance to talk to you about last night," Don Giovanni protested. "You have no choice but to go. If we allow Tasha to entertain the authorities, we'll all be locked up."
Antonietta patted her grandfather's leg. "Be nice, Nonno. She wore herself out at the hospital. She was wonderful with Margurite."
"She does love the children," Don Giovanni agreed. "Did Byron happen to mention to you whether or not he would be here today? I don't know his address, and the authorities wanted to hear his account of what happened. I don't think anyone believed he would dive into the sea to pull out a drowning old man."
Antonietta could not prevent the small smile. "Oh, I'm certain he will be here soon, Nonno. " She leaned over to kiss her grandfather. "Anyone would do anything to save you. You're the family treasure."