The bottle of Castello di Giambelli Cabernet Sauvignon, '02, auctioned for one hundred and twenty-five thousand, five hundred dollars, American. A great deal of money, Sophia thought, for wine mixed with sentiment. The wine in that fine old bottle had been produced from grapes harvested in the year Cezare Giambelli had established the Castello di Giambelli winery on a hilly patch of land north of Venice.
At that time the castello had been either a con or supreme optimism, depending on your point of view. Cezare's modest house and little stone winery had been far from castlelike. But his vines had been regal, and he had built an empire from them.
After nearly a century, even a superior Cabernet Sauvignon was likely more palatable sprinkled on a salad rather than drunk, but it wasn't her job to argue with the man with the money. Her grandmother had been right, as always. They would pay, and richly, for the privilege of owning a piece of Giambelli history.
Sophia made a note of the final bid and the buyer's name, though she was unlikely to forget either, for the memo she would send to her grandmother when the auction was over.
She was attending the event not only as the public relations executive who had designed and implemented the promotion and catalogue for the auction, but as the Giambelli family representative at this exclusive, pre-centennial event.
As such, she sat quietly in the rear of the room to observe the bidding, and the presentation.
Her legs were crossed in a long, elegant line. Her back convent-school straight. She wore a black pin-striped suit, tailored and Italian, that managed to look both businesslike and utterly feminine.
It was exactly the way Sophia thought of herself.
Her face was sharp, a triangle of pale gold dominated by large, deep-set brown eyes and a wide, mobile mouth. Her cheekbones were ice-pick keen, her chin a diamond point, sculpting a look that was part pixie, part warrior. She had, deliberately, ruthlessly, used her face as a weapon when it seemed most expedient.
Tools, she believed, were meant to be used, and used well.
A year before, she'd had her waist-length hair cut into a short black cap with a spiky fringe over her forehead.
It suited her. Sophia knew exactly what suited her.
She wore the single strand of antique pearls her grandmother had given her for her twenty-first birthday, and an expression of polite interest. She thought of it as her father's boardroom look.
Her eyes brightened, and the corners of her wide mouth curved slightly as the next item was showcased.
It was a bottle of Barolo, '34, from the cask Cezare had named Di Tereza in honor of her grandmother's birth. This private reserve carried a picture of Tereza at ten on the label, the year the wine had been deemed sufficiently aged in oak, and bottled.
Now, at sixty-seven, Tereza Giambelli was a legend, whose renown as a vintner had overshadowed even her grandfather's.
This was the first bottle of this label ever offered for sale, or passed outside the family. As Sophia expected, bidding was brisk and spirited.The man sitting beside Sophia tapped his catalogue where the photograph of the bottle was displayed. "You have the look of her."
Sophia shifted slightly, smiled first at him-a distinguished man hovering comfortably somewhere near sixty-then at the picture of the young girl staring seriously out from a bottle of red in his catalogue. "Thank you."
Marshall Evans, she recalled. Real estate, second generation Fortune 500. She made it her business to know the names and vital statistics of wine buffs and collectors with deep pockets and sterling taste.
"I'd hoped La Signora would attend today's auction. She's well?"
"Very. But otherwise occupied."
The beeper in her jacket pocket vibrated. Vaguely annoyed with the interruption, Sophia ignored it to watch the bidding. Her eyes scanned the room, noting the signals. The casual lift of a finger from the third row brought the price up another five hundred. A subtle nod from the fifth topped it.
In the end, the Barolo outdistanced the Cabernet Sauvignon by fifteen thousand, and she turned to extend her hand to the man beside her.
"Congratulations, Mr. Evans. Your contribution to the International Red Cross will be put to good use. On behalf of Giambelli, family and company, I hope you enjoy your prize."
"There's no doubt of it." He took her hand, lifted it to his lips. "I had the pleasure of meeting La Signora many years ago. She's an extraordinary woman."
"Yes, she is."
"Perhaps her granddaughter would join me for dinner this evening?"
He was old enough to be her father, but Sophia was too European to find that a deterrent. Another time, she'd have agreed, and no doubt enjoyed his company. "I'm sorry, but I have an appointment. Perhaps on my next trip east, if you're free."
"I'll make sure I am."
Putting some warmth into her smile, she rose. "If you'll excuse me."
She slipped out of the room, plucking the beeper from her pocket to check the number. She detoured to the ladies' lounge, glancing at her watch and pulling the phone from her bag. With the number punched in, she settled on one of the sofas and laid her notebook and her electronic organizer on her lap.
After a long and demanding week in New York, she was still revved and, glancing through her appointments, pleased to have time to squeeze in a little shopping before she needed to change for her dinner date.
Jeremy DeMorney, she mused. That meant an elegant, sophisticated evening. French restaurant, discussion of food, travel and theater. And, of course, of wine. As he was descended from the La Coeur winery DeMorneys, and a top account exec there, and she sprang from Giambelli stock, there would be some playful attempts to pry corporate secrets from each other.
And there would be champagne. Good, she was in the mood for it.
All followed by an outrageously romantic attempt to lure her into bed. She wondered if she'd be in the mood for that as well.
He was attractive, she considered, and could be amusing. Perhaps if they both hadn't been aware that her father had once slept with his wife, the idea of a little romance between them wouldn't seem so awkward, and somehow incestuous.
Still, several years had passed....
"Maria." Sophia neatly tucked Jerry and the evening to come away, when the Giambelli housekeeper answered. "I've a call from my mother's line. Is she available?"
"Oh, yes, Miss Sophia. She hoped you would call. Just one moment."
Sophia imagined the woman hurrying through the wing, scanning the rooms for something to tidy when Pilar Giambelli Avano would have already tidied everything herself.
Mama, Sophia thought, would have been content in a little rose-covered cottage where she could bake bread, do her needlework and tend her garden. She should have had a half dozen children, Sophia thought with a sigh. And had to settle for me.
"Sophie, I was just heading out to the greenhouse. Wait. Catch my breath. I didn't expect you to get back to me so quickly. I thought you'd be in the middle of the auction."
"End of it. And I think we can say it's been an unqualified success. I'll fax a memo of the particulars this evening, or first thing in the morning. Now, I really should go back and tie up the loose ends. Is everything all right there?"
"More or less. Your grandmother's ordered a summit meeting."
"Oh, Mama, she's not dying again. We went through that six months ago."
"Eight," Pilar corrected. "But who's counting? I'm sorry, baby, but she insists. I don't think she plans to die this time, but she's planning something. She's called the lawyers for another revamp of the will. And she gave me her mother's cameo brooch, which means she's thinking ahead."
"I thought she gave you that last time."
"No, it was the amber beads last time. She's sending for everyone. You need to come back."
"All right, all right." Sophia glanced down at her organizer and blew a mental kiss goodbye to Jerry DeMorney. "I'll finish up here and be on my way. But really, Mama, this new habit of hers of dying or revamping every few months is very inconvenient."
"You're a good girl, Sophie. I'm going to leave you my amber beads."
"Thanks a bunch." With a laugh, Sophia disconnected.
Two hours later, she was flying west and speculating whether in another forty years she would have the power to crook her finger and have everyone scrambling.
Just the idea of it made her smile as she settled back with a glass of champagne and Verdi playing on the headphones.
Not everyone scrambled. Tyler MacMillan might have been minutes away from Villa Giambelli rather than hours, but he considered the vines a great deal more urgent than a summons from La Signora.
And he said so.
"Now, Ty. You can take a few hours."
"Not now." Ty paced his office, anxious to get back into the fields. "I'm sorry, Granddad. You know how vital the winter pruning is, and so does Tereza." He shifted the portable phone to his other ear. He hated the portables. He was always losing them. "MacMillan's vines need every bit as much care as Giambelli's."
"You put me in charge here. I'm doing my job."
"Ty," Eli repeated. With his grandson, he knew, matters must be put on a very basic level. "Tereza and I are as dedicated to MacMillan wines as we are to those under the Giambelli label, and have been for twenty years. You were put in charge because you're an exceptional vintner. Tereza has plans. Those plans involve you."
"Tomorrow." Eli didn't put his foot down often; it wasn't the way he worked. But when necessary, he did so ruthlessly. "One o'clock. Lunch. Dress appropriately."
Tyler scowled down at his ancient boots and the frayed hems of his thick trousers. "That's the middle of the damn day."
"Are you the only one at MacMillan capable of pruning vines, Tyler? Apparently you've lost a number of employees over the last season."
"I'll be there. But tell me one thing."
"Is this the last time she's going to die for a while?"
"One o'clock," Eli responded. "Try to be on time."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Tyler muttered, but only after he clicked the phone off.
He adored his grandfather. He even adored Tereza, perhaps because she was so ornery and annoying. When his grandfather had married the Giambelli heiress, Tyler had been eleven years old. He'd fallen in love with the vineyards, the rise of the hills, the shadows of the caves, the great caverns of the cellars.
And in a very real sense he'd fallen in love with Tereza Louisa Elana Giambelli, that whip-thin, ramrod-straight, somewhat terrifying figure he'd first seen dressed in boots and trousers not so different from his own, striding through the mustard plants between the rising rows of grapes.
She'd taken one look at him, lifted a razor-sharp black eyebrow and deemed him soft and citified. If he was to be her grandson, she'd told him, he would have to be toughened up.
She'd ordered him to stay at the villa for the summer. No one had considered arguing the point. Certainly not his parents, who'd been more than happy to dump him for an extended period so they could fly off to parties and lovers. So he had stayed, Tyler thought now as he wandered to the window. Summer after summer until the vineyards were more home to him than the house in San Francisco, until she and his grandfather were more parents to him than his mother and father.
She'd made him. Pruned him back at the age of eleven and trained him to grow into what he was.
But she didn't own him. It was ironic, he supposed, that all her work should have formed him into the one person under her aegis most likely to ignore her demands.
Harder, of course, to ignore the demands when she and his grandfather unified. With a shrug, Tyler started out of the office. He could spare a few hours, and they knew it as well as he. The MacMillan vineyards employed the best, and he could easily have absented himself for most of a season with confidence in those left in charge.
The simple fact was he hated the big, sprawling events the Giambellis generated. They were invariably like a circus, with all three rings packed with colorful acts. You couldn't keep track, and it was always possible one of the tigers would leap the cage and go for your throat.
All those people, all those issues, all those pretenses and smoky undercurrents. He was happier walking the vineyards or checking the casks or plunking down with one of his winemakers and discussing the qualities of that year's Chardonnay.
Social duties were simply that. Duties.
He detoured through the charming ramble of the house that had been his grandfather's into the kitchen to refill his thermos with coffee. Absently he set the portable phone he still carried on the counter and began rearranging his schedule in his head to accommodate La Signora.
He was no longer citified, or soft. He was just over six feet with a body sculpted by fieldwork and a preference for the outdoors. His hands were wide, and tough with calluses, with long fingers that knew how to dip delicately under leaves to the grape. His hair tended to curl if he forgot to have it trimmed, which he often did, and was a deep brown that showed hints of red, like an aged burgundy in the sunlight. His rawboned face was more rugged than handsome, with lines beginning to fan out from eyes of clear and calm blue that could harden to steel.
The scar along his jaw, which he'd earned with a tumble off a stand of rocks at age thirteen, only annoyed him when he remembered to shave.
Which he reminded himself he would have to do before lunch the following day.
Those who worked for him considered him a fair man, if often a single-minded one. Tyler would have appreciated the analysis. They also considered him an artist, and that would have baffled him.
To Tyler MacMillan, the artist was the grape.He stepped outside into the brisk winter air. He had two hours before sunset, and vines to tend.
Donato Giambelli had a headache of outrageous proportions. Her name was Gina, and she was his wife. When the summons from La Signora had come, he had been happily engaged in eye-crossing sex with his current mistress, a multitalented aspiring actress with thighs strong enough to crack walnuts. Unlike his wife, all the mistress required was the occasional bauble and a sweaty romp three times a week. She did not require conversation.
There were times he thought Gina required nothing else.
She babbled at him. Babbled at each of their three children. Babbled at his mother until the air in the company jet vibrated with the endless stream of words.
Between her, the baby's screaming, little Cezare's banging and Tereza Maria's bouncing, Don gave serious thought to opening the hatch and shoving his entire family off the plane and into oblivion.
Only his mother was quiet, and only because she'd taken a sleeping pill, an air-sickness pill, an allergy pill and God knew what else, washed them all down with two glasses of Merlot before putting her eye mask in place and passing out.
She'd spent most of her life, at least the portion he knew of it, medicated and oblivious. At the moment, he considered that superior wisdom.
He could only sit, his temples throbbing, and damn his aunt Tereza to hell and beyond for insisting his entire family make the trip.
He was executive vice president of Giambelli, Venice, was he not? Any business that needed to be conducted required him, not his family.
Why had God plagued him with such a family?
Not that he didn't love them. Of course he loved them. But the baby was as fat as a turkey, and there was Gina pulling out a breast for its greedy mouth.
Once, that breast had been a work of art, he thought. Gold and firm and tasting of peaches. Now it was stretched like an overfilled balloon, and, had he been inclined to taste, flavored with baby drool.
And the woman was already making noises about yet another one.
The woman he'd married had been ripe, lush, sexually charged and empty of head. She had been perfection. In five short years she had become fat, sloppy and her head was full of babies.
Was it any wonder he sought his comfort elsewhere?
"Donny, I think Zia Tereza will give you a big promotion, and we'll all move into the castello." She lusted for the great house of Giambelli-all those lovely rooms, all the servants. Her children would be raised in luxury, with privilege.
Fine clothes, the best schools and, one day, the Giambelli fortune at their feet.
She was the only one giving La Signora babies, wasn't she? That would count for quite a bit.
"Cezare," she said to her son as he tore the head off his sister's doll. "Stop that! Now you made your sister cry. Here now, here, give me the doll. Mama will fix."
Little Cezare, eyes glinting, tossed the head gleefully over his shoulder and began to taunt his sister.
"English, Cezare!" She shook a finger at him. "We're going to America. You'll speak English to your zia Tereza and show her what a smart boy you are. Come, come."
Tereza Maria, screaming over the death of her doll, retrieved the severed head and raced up and down the cabin in a flurry of grief and rage.
"Cezare! Do as Mama says."
In response, the boy flung himself to the floor, arms and legs hammering.
Don lurched up, stumbled away and locked himself in the sanctuary of his in-flight office.
Anthony Avano enjoyed the finer things. He'd chosen his two-story penthouse in San Francisco's Back Bay with care and deliberation, then had hired the top decorator in the city to outfit it for him. Status and style were high priorities. Having them without having to make any real effort was another.
He failed to see how a man could be comfortable without those basic elements.
His rooms reflected what he thought of as classic taste-from the silk moiré walls, the Oriental carpets, to the gleaming oak furniture. He'd chosen, or his decorator had, rich fabrics in neutral tones with a few splashes of bold colors artfully arranged.
The modern art, which meant absolutely nothing to him, was, he'd been told, a striking counterpoint to the quiet elegance.
He relied heavily on the services of decorators, tailors, brokers, jewelers and dealers to guide him into surrounding himself with the best.
Some of his detractors had been known to say Tony Avano was born with taste. And all of it in his mouth. He wouldn't have argued the point. But money, as Tony saw it, bought all the taste a man required.
He knew one thing. And that was wine.
His cellars were arguably among the best in California. Every bottle had been personally selected. While he couldn't distinguish a Sangiovese from a Semillon on the vine, and had no interest in the growing of the grape, he had a superior nose. And that nose had steadily climbed the corporate ladder at Giambelli, California. Thirty years before, it had married Pilar Giambelli.
It had taken that nose less than two years to begin sniffing at other women.
Tony was the first to admit that women were his weakness. There were so many of them, after all. He had loved Pilar as deeply as he was capable of loving another human being. He had certainly loved his position of privilege in the Giambelli organization as the husband of La Signora's daughter and as the father of her granddaughter.
For those reasons he had, for many years, attempted to be very discreet about his particular weakness. He had even tried, a number of times, to reform.
But then there would be another woman, soft and fragrant or sultry and seductive. What was a man to do?
The weakness had eventually cost him his marriage, in a technical if not a legal sense. He and Pilar had been separated for seven years. Neither of them had made the move toward divorce. She, he knew, because she loved him. And he because it seemed like a great deal of trouble and would have seriously displeased Tereza.
In any case, as far as Tony was concerned, the current situation suited everyone nicely. Pilar preferred the countryside, he the city. They maintained a polite, even a reasonably friendly relationship. And he kept his position as president of sales, Giambelli, California.
Seven years they had walked that civilized line. Now, he was very afraid he was about to fall off the edge of it.
Rene was insisting on marriage. Like a silk-lined steamroller, Rene had a way of moving toward a goal and flattening all barriers in her path. Discussions with her left Tony limp and dizzy.
She was violently jealous, overbearing, demanding and prone to icy sulks.
He was crazy about her.
At thirty-two, she was twenty-seven years his junior, a fact that stroked his well-developed ego. Knowing she was every bit as interested in his money as the rest of him didn't trouble him. He respected her for it.
He worried that if he gave her what she wanted, he would lose what she wanted him for.
It was a hell of a fix. To resolve it, Tony did what he usually did regarding difficulties. He ignored it as long as humanly possible.
Studying his view of the bay, sipping a small vermouth, Tony waited for Rene to finish dressing for their evening out. And worried that his time was up.
The doorbell had him glancing over, frowning slightly. They weren't expecting anyone. As it was his majordomo's evening off, he went to see who was there. The frown cleared as he opened the door to his daughter.
"Sophie, what a lovely surprise."
She rose slightly on her toes to kiss his cheek. Ridiculously handsome, as ever, she thought. Good genes and an excellent plastic surgeon served him well. She did her best to ignore the quick and instinctive tug of resentment, and tried to focus on the equally quick and instinctive tug of love.
It seemed she was forever pulled in opposing directions over her father.
"I'm just in from New York, and wanted to see you before I headed up to the villa."
She scanned his face-smooth, almost unlined and certainly untroubled. The dark hair wisped attractively with gray at the temples, the deep blue eyes were clear. He had a handsome, squared-off chin with a center dimple. She'd loved dipping her finger into it as a child and making him laugh.
The love for him swarmed through her and tangled messily with the resentment. It was always so.
"I see you're going out," she said, noting his tuxedo.
"Shortly." He took her hand to draw her inside. "But there's plenty of time. Sit down, princess, and tell me how you are. What can I get you?"
She tipped his glass toward her. Sniffed, approved. "What you're having's fine."
She scanned the room as he walked over to the liquor cabinet. An expensive pretext, she thought. All show and no substance. Just like her father.
"Are you going up tomorrow?"
She tilted her head as he crossed back to her. "To the villa."
She took the glass, considering as she sipped. "You didn't get a call?"
Loyalties tugged and tangled inside her. He'd cheated on her mother, had carelessly ignored his vows as long as Sophia could remember, and in the end had left them both with barely a backward glance. But he was still family, and the family was being called to the villa.
"La Signora. One of her summits with lawyers, I'm told. You might want to be there."
"Ah, well, really, I was-"
He broke off as Rene walked in.
If there was a poster girl for the trophy mistress, Sophia thought as her temper sizzled, Rene Foxx was it. Tall, curvy and blonde on blonde. The Valentino gown showcased a body ruthlessly toned, and managed to look understated and elegant.
Her hair was swept up, slicked back to leave her lovely, pampered face with its full, sensuous mouth-collagen, Sophia thought cattily-and shrewd green eyes.
She'd chosen diamonds to marry the Valentino, and they flashed and shimmered against her polished skin.
Just how much, Sophia wondered, had those rocks set her father back?
"Hello." Sophia sipped more vermouth to wash some of the bitterness off her tongue. "Rene, isn't it?"
"Yes, and it has been for nearly two years. It's still Sophia?"
"Yes, for twenty-six."
Tony cleared his throat. Nothing, in his opinion, was more dangerous than two sniping females. The man between them always took the bullet.
"Rene, Sophia's just in from New York."
"Really?" Enjoying herself, Rene took Tony's glass, sipped. "That explains why you're looking a bit travel-frayed. We're about to leave for a party. You're welcome to join us," she added, hooking her arm through Tony's. "I must have something in my closet that would work on you."
If she was going to go claw to claw with Rene, it wouldn't be after a coast-to-coast flight and in her father's apartment. Sophia would choose the time, and the place.
"That's so considerate, but I'd feel awkward wearing something so obviously too large. And," she added, coating her words with sugar, "I'm just on my way north. Family business." She set her glass down. "Enjoy your evening."
She walked to the door, where Tony caught up with her to give her shoulder a quick, placating pat. "Why don't you come along, Sophie? You're fine as you are. You're beautiful."
"No, thank you." She turned, and their eyes met. His were full of sheepish apology. It was an expression she was too accustomed to seeing for it to be effective. "I'm not feeling particularly festive."
He winced as she shut the door in his face.
"What did she want?" Rene demanded.
"She just dropped by, as I said."
"Your daughter never does anything without a reason."
He shrugged. "She may have thought we could drive up north together in the morning. Tereza's sent out a summons."
Rene's eyes narrowed. "You didn't tell me about that."
"I didn't get one." He dismissed the entire matter and thought of the party and just how he and Rene would look making their entrance. "You look fabulous, Rene. It's a shame to cover that dress, even with mink. Shall I get your wrap?"
"What do you mean you didn't get one?" Rene slapped the empty glass on a table. "Your position at Giambelli is certainly more important than your daughter's." And Rene meant to see it remained that way. "If the old woman's calling the family, you go. We'll drive up tomorrow."
"It's the perfect opportunity to take your stand, Tony, and to tell Pilar you want a divorce. We'll make it an early night, so we'll both be clearheaded." She crossed to him, slid her fingers down his cheek.
With Tony, she knew, manipulation required firm demands and physical rewards, judiciously melded.
"And when we get back tonight, I'll show you just what you can expect from me when we're married. When we get back, Tony..." She leaned in, bit teasingly at his bottom lip. "You can do anything you want."
"Let's just skip the party."
She laughed, slipped away from his hands. "It's important. And it'll give you time to think of just what you want to do to me. Get my sable for me, won't you, darling?"
She felt like sable tonight, Rene thought as Tony went to comply.
She felt rich tonight.
Excerpted from THE VILLA © Copyright 2001 by Nora Roberts. Reprinted with permission by Putnam Pub Group, an imprint of Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved.