Three years ago
Marco DeMedici slid behind cover as Taliban forces fired on his unit as well as their Afghan allies. He knew there were those who believed that once the Taliban’s stranglehold on the country was broken in 2003 that they no longer held any power in the war-torn area. Marco and the other soldiers that were still in the country knew better. The Afghan government put on a good display of being in control, but that’s all it was—a show for the rest of the world at large.
Marco was in a good position to lob a grenade into the small hut where the remainder of the Taliban unit they had been fighting for the past two days had taken refuge and was making a last stand. He rolled up onto his knees, throwing the grenade with deadly accuracy. He watched as it went through the open doorway and then ducked down. He not only felt but heard the explosion and could smell death as the men on the inside of the building perished and the men with him cheered.
When did it come to this, he thought. When did men start to cheer the death of others? Yes, the men he’d just killed were the enemy. He shared none of their beliefs. He believed they had to be stopped. But he did not wish them dead.
Several members of the Afghan force went through the building to ensure that there were no survivors from the blast. They too were cheering.
“What’s the matter, Marco? You don’t look happy. We routed them today. We won.”
Marco smiled wryly. “But what have we won if we have lost a piece of our souls?”
Marco rose from the ground wearily. He couldn’t remember a time he had ever been this exhausted. Normally his wolfen physiology allowed him to have more strength and endurance and to recover more quickly than his human comrades. But today he knew it would take more than his wolf-human hybrid composition to restore him to a state of well-being. As others before him had done, Marco knew it was time to go home.
Several hours later he was packing his duffel in preparation for his departure from this land still riddled with war. The general he’d served under for a number of years walked in. He spied the duffel on Marco’s cot.
“Something tells me that you didn’t just forget to sign the papers to extend your tour.”
Marco turned and smiled. “No. I’m going home.”
“Look, Marco, I understand needing to take a break. How about you agree to extend for just a year and I’ll give you a month’s R and R?”
“No, Sam. It’s time I went home. My father died last year and the man he left to cover for him has done a good job, but he was always to have been a placeholder. I need to go home to take care of my family, our business, and those who derive their livelihoods from the DeMedici.”
The general sighed with resignation. “I can’t change your mind?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Marco. He closed up his duffel and extended his hand to the human he most respected in the world. “It’s been an honor to serve under you.”
The general took his hand and shook it. “The honor, Colonel, has been all mine.”
There was nothing left for either to say. Marco shouldered his duffel and headed out to catch a ride with one of the Jeeps headed to the airstrip and the plane that would take him home.
A few hours later they had entered Italian air space. Marco breathed a sigh of relief. He glanced at his watch and smiled. In less than an hour he would land at the air base. His plan was to go into the closest city, purchase a good motorcycle, and then head for home.
The thought of home made him smile. The DeMedici pack had held their land for more than a thousand years. It had been a fortress long before that time and had become a vineyard only in the past eight hundred years. The Nebbiolo grape was the predominant grape grown by the DeMedici. Their land and their way of life was well suited to its longer growth season and necessity to be harvested by hand.
Marco closed his eyes and drifted in a light slumber. There she was, the beautiful blonde who haunted his dreams and seemed to comfort him during his darkest nights. That she was his fated mate seemed only logical. He couldn’t tell for sure, but he felt she was not Italian by birth. No matter, he thought to himself, once she was mated to him she would be Italian and become mistress to the great DeMedici pack.
She was beautiful—tall, blonde-haired, with piercing blue eyes. Marco longed to get his hands on her naked body. She had beautiful large breasts and a well-defined waist that curved outward to form hips made for bearing his children. And her ass was a thing of perfection. He knew for her to be his fated mate, she would be spirited. His cock began to harden at the thought of bringing her to heel.
Marco’s reverie was broken as the plane touched down. He watched as men began to gather their things to deplane. After everyone else was gone, Marco picked up his things and trotted down the ramp. One thing he wouldn’t miss was the air travel provided for the Italian Special Forces unit.
As he disembarked, he noticed a large man standing off to the side. It was Giovanni. He smiled, but of course Giovanni would be here. The man he’d grown up with strode toward him opening his arms. Marco put down his duffel and embraced him.
“It’s good to have you finally home, Alpha,” said Giovanni.
“That designation is still yours, my old friend.”
Giovanni shook his head. “No, I was always to be a placeholder. Your father will rest easier and I will be much happier to take my place as your beta until you choose another.”
Marco looked askance. “And why would I choose another? Will you refuse your alpha if he requests you to remain at his side?”
Giovanni smiled. “No, Alpha. I would never refuse you.”
“Then it is settled and you will remain as beta. But what are you doing here? Is there trouble? I would have been home this evening.”
“Obviously you will do as you like, but I brought one of the helicopters to take you to the vineyard. Your pack is waiting and most anxious to have their alpha home.”
Marco smiled. “Geared up for a homecoming celebration, are they?”
Giovanni returned the smile. “Yes, Alpha. I thought it might be easier on you if you hadn’t been driving all day.”
Marco laughed. “Already looking out for me. That is not necessarily part of your responsibilities as beta.”
“Perhaps not, but you have no mate to see to it so it falls to me.”
Marco laughed out loud. “So, I’m not even home yet and already the pestering to take a mate begins.”
“I’m afraid so. There are several girls amongst our number who would be more than happy to assume the mantle of mistress.”
“Your mate will have to continue as hostess when needed. I have seen my fated mate and she is not amongst us.”
“Then where is she?”
Marco laughed again. “I fear my naughty mate has yet to reveal that to me. But trust me, when she does I will waste no time in making her mine.”
“As you will, Alpha. We are truly glad to have you home.”
“As am I. I feel the weighted veil of war and death already beginning to be lifted.”
The two men crossed the airfield and boarded the luxury helicopter that would take them back to the DeMedici stronghold.
Two years later
Catherine Livingston boarded her flight on Alitalia in New York City headed to Florence, Italy. She was at peace but more focused than she could ever remember. Catherine had always been the dutiful granddaughter, the dedicated student, and the perfect businesswoman. Her recent reorganization and change in her life was for her. But this trip was for her sister, Shannon.
Catherine was a tall, striking blonde who turned heads wherever she went, but seemed not to notice. Always focused on her own agenda, it took quite a bit of trying for any man to catch her interest. She usually wore her hair loose either naturally curly or pulled back in a French braid. Either showed the length to be well past her shoulders. She had striking blue eyes that changed with her mood. She had often been told that with her temper, she should have been a redhead.
Her parents had died when she was young and she and her sister had been brought up by an indulgent grandfather. He had encouraged her artistic endeavors by giving her private lessons, a large space filled with light to work and more supplies that any one art student should have. He had, however, encouraged her to see her art as a hobby and to study something practical—something she could make a good living at as she seemed disinclined to be a wife and mother and allow a man to provide for her.
She had done as he asked and become a successful corporate raider and business consultant. It seemed her talent extended to both sides of a conflict. She was equally at home destroying a company for a client to be able to gobble up as she was at defending a client from a hostile takeover. More than one CEO had found him/herself quaking in their boots when they realized the opposition had engaged Catherine. She was smart, tenacious, and feared nothing.
The last few years had been difficult. Her beloved grandfather has passed away and her younger sister, Shannon, had gone missing on a dream vacation to Europe several months ago. Their grandfather had specifically willed Shannon the money for the trip as a college graduation present. Shannon had taken off and checked in regularly from London and Paris. She had checked in from Rome. Catherine had spoken with Shannon once more from Rome and then nothing. Catherine had worked through the US Embassy, who had been of little to no help, and then hired private investigators to try to locate her sister—all to no avail. Shannon had simply disappeared. Catherine kept the best of the private investigators on retainer and kept him looking for any clue as to Shannon’s death or her whereabouts.
Catherine had begun to feel very much like an orphan. Even though she was an adult she felt the loss of having a family. Her work kept her constantly on the move so meaningful relationships were difficult if not impossible. Mostly she settled for short-term relationships in the various places she had to work. They were finite with a definite beginning, middle, and end. For the most part, Catherine had convinced herself she liked it that way.
But three years ago, she’d been in a freak rollover accident in a town car. She had been thrown free and had escaped with a dislocated shoulder and a lot of bruises. Everyone else in the car had perished. As was her norm, she had finished the job she was on before returning to her SoHo loft to rest and recuperate. It was while she was there that she began to question her life. She wondered if those who had died had been happy or at least satisfied with their lives. She knew when she looked at her own, she would have had to say no.
Catherine also began to believe that if she was ever going to find the answers to her questions about her little sister that she herself would need to find them.
It was during this time of reflection and self-discovery that the mysterious dark man to whom she felt inexplicably drawn began to haunt—no, that wasn’t right—to inhabit her dreams. Almost every night she would see him most often with a large black wolf at his side. Some nights they would interact; others she could would merely feel his presence before turning to find him standing with the wolf on the horizon. On several occasions, she had sensed he needed her and had gone close to offer him comfort.
Between frugal living and the income she generated from her business, Catherine had been able to amass a good-sized nest egg. But that was nothing compared to the fortune her grandfather had left her. As she sat in her loft sketching and nursing her injured shoulder she began to wonder what if. What if she hadn’t studied business? What if she had followed her passion and studied art? And then the inevitable, what if even after studying she wasn’t good enough to make it as an artist?
The latter had led her to explore the careers available in art history, art restoration, and art appraiser. Deciding that any one of the three would feed her soul more than being a corporate raider, she quietly closed shop and enrolled in the prestigious Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. She was thrilled when she was invited to enroll, as only fifteen percent of those who applied annually were accepted.
Cooper was known to be a daunting experience for most, but with a caring faculty and administration that kept its successful graduate rate above the norm for most colleges. Catherine had thrived there. She had majored in the visual arts, painting to be more specific with a focus on art restoration. She figured if she couldn’t create her own masterpieces, she could ensure the survival of others.
Catherine graduated at the top of her class. She decided to reward herself and celebrate with a trip to the fabled city of Florence in Italy. She planned to immerse herself in its culture, its art, and its food. She also planned to begin her own search for Shannon. The private investigator had recently come across some disturbing rumors regarding human trafficking. He had related that young, pretty, single girls like Shannon were easy and tempting targets. He had been able to track her last known sighting to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
Catherine’s hard work ensured that she could afford to fly first class and her trip to Florence was no exception. After having gotten settled for the long flight, Catherine got comfortable and closed her eyes.
A brief smile crossed her face as the man who had begun to inhabit all of her dreams appeared. Dark-haired, dark-eyed with a massively muscular physique and a regal hawk-like nose. More than one of her fantasies had involved this man and feeling his head between her legs with his nose nudging her outer lips apart so that he could sup on what lay beyond. She had also experienced far more visceral dreams in which he possessed her body completely. She had begun to look forward to seeing him each night and would miss him when he was not there.
Those were not the only dreams in which he appeared. There were others with disturbing imagery. Scenes of war—broken bodies and blood, ravaged landscapes, and the smell of death. She could see him amid the horror. Catherine would often go to him in those dreams and just be with him—absorb whatever she could from him of his pain and mental anguish. That he had caused or been part of the conflict frightened her, but that fear was offset by knowing he took no joy in it and that one day it would be a part of his past.
She began to write in her journal little snippets of the dreams that she remembered. One thing she had found odd was that he was often accompanied by or close to the large coal black wolf. The wolf didn’t seem to mean either of them harm. Catherine knew from her research that the wolf was a symbol of guardianship, loyalty, and spirit. It was said that those whose spirit animal was a wolf made strong, quick, and lasting emotional attachments, trusted their instincts, and controlled their own destinies. Once Catherine understood the positive qualities associated with having a wolf as a spirit guide, she decided he could inhabit her dreams as well.
Marco stood on the broad balcony of the villa he called home and watched as the sun made its lazy climb over the horizon. He started each morning this way—alone on his bedroom balcony with a cup of espresso and a chocolate biscotti. He would spend some time just breathing in the rarefied air of his family’s ancestral home and vineyard. He would map out his day and then as the rest of the household began to stir, he would descend the stairs and once again assume the mantle of alpha of the DeMedici pack.
When Marco had returned home three years ago after a long stint as a Special Forces operative, he had let the peace and beauty of this place restore his soul. He had been grateful to Giovanni, his beta, for having kept things going between the death of his own father and Marco fulfilling his obligations to the military. He and Giovanni had searched and recruited an excellent vintner who also happened to be a wolf.
Luca had proved to be not only a skilled vintner, but a gifted omega for the pack. He often times had to be reminded that he was not expected to work twenty-four hours a day either as vintner or omega. However, Marco had to admit that under Luca’s guidance, both the pack and the vineyard had flourished.
Marco smiled. Today would bring a visit from the Welsh wolf as his people referred to Griffin Owen. Griffin had become a friend many years ago when they had worked on a special black ops mission. Both had recognized that the other was an alpha wolf. Both had put aside their natural inclination to be rivals for the sake of the mission and had found in the other a life-long friend. Since that time, they had shared many adventures—some in the battlefield and some vying for the attention of various women. Griffin often teased Marco that he wasn’t a wolf at all but a reincarnation of Casanova, the famous Italian lover. Marco had laughed and merely pointed out that he liked to indulge the carnal side of his nature and that none of the women involved had ever been hurt in any way by him.
Marco finished dressing and descended the stairs. “Buongiorno,” he said as he walked into the great dining room.
He smiled. While many wolf packs had large dining halls—most often converted from other uses, e.g., ballroom, conference area, etc.—the one at the villa had always been a dining room. It had hosted many a feast over its long history. It was, as was the rest of the villa, breathtakingly beautiful. The walls were all done in hand-painted murals and Marco had replaced the entire back wall with a series of French doors that led out onto an expansive terrazzo.
The members of his pack acknowledged his greeting and many called back to him. They were a self-contained community and company. Most all of those who worked in the vineyards or as part of the villa’s staff lived on the main property itself. However, Marco’s holdings extended beyond the stone-walled borders to the small town beyond.
Marco joined Luca at the table usually reserved for them.
“Our beta and his mate? It’s not like Giovanni to tarry in their bed at this time of year.”
Luca chuckled. “While it may be his mate that has his attention at the moment, Marco, I fear it isn’t to avail himself of her ample charms.”
Marco laughed. Valentina, Giovanni’s mate, was a beauty with an extremely sensual nature but a mischievous streak a mile wide. She was forever getting herself into enough trouble that she would find herself face down over Giovanni’s knee having her backside peppered until she relented and promised once again to behave herself. Marco idly wondered what she had done this time.
The thought had no sooner crossed his mind than Giovanni entered with his Valentina in tow. He gestured toward one of the chairs at the table. “Sit,” he ordered.
“I don’t want to,” she said petulantly.
Luca and Marco exchanged pointed glances. That tone would not serve Valentina well. Most likely it meant that her punishment had not been sufficient to restore balance between them.
“Did I ask you whether or not you wanted to, cara?”
“No.” She turned toward their alpha. “Tell him to apologize to me.”
“For what?” asked Marco.
“For spanking me this morning,” said Valentina in an exasperated tone.
A low, warning growl came from Giovanni.
“Did you not do something to deserve a spanking from your mate?” asked Marco softly but with a voice that brooked no defiance. “Careful how you answer me, Valentina. Lie or play loose with the truth, I will instruct your mate that he is to return with you to your bedroom to wash your mouth out with soap, spank your lovely backside until he has gotten through to you, and then make you his until you beg his forgiveness in a voice filled with love and desire before he finishes you.”
Now it was Luca and Giovanni’s turn to exchange pointed looks.
Marco adored women… all women. Those in his pack reciprocated his feelings. He was part older brother and part indulgent father, but all alpha. He would indulge and spoil them in many ways, but never would he place himself between one of his men and the man’s mate.
Valentina quickly quieted and glanced back and forth between her mate and her alpha. She walked over to Giovanni, molded herself to him, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him.
“I’m sorry, Gio. I didn’t mean to worry you or make you angry. I won’t do it again.”
Giovanni smiled and returned his mate’s kisses. “Yes, you will,” he teased. “Now, do you want to go get a pillow to sit on?”
“Good girl. You do that, and I’ll go get our breakfast.”
Valentina turned to leave.
She stopped to look at her mate.
“What do you have to say to Marco?”
She blushed and walked over to their alpha with her eyes downcast. “I’m sorry, Marco. I shouldn’t have tried to drag you into it.”
Marco smiled at her and lifted her chin. “That’s all right, Valentina. But you mind Giovanni.”
“Yes, Alpha,” she said quietly. Valentina headed into the adjacent sitting room, brought back a well-padded pillow, and placed it on the chair before lowering herself gracefully and gingerly onto it.
Giovanni brought over plates with hearty breakfasts. “Can I get you anything, Marco?”
Marco shook his head. “No, I’ll get something in a minute.”
“So when is the Welsh wolf meant to join us?” asked Luca. He’d heard much about Marco’s closest friend outside the pack but had yet to meet him.
“I would think he would be here sometime before lunch.”
“Is this just a visit or does he have an agenda?” asked Giovanni.
“I think just a visit, but I would like to see if he’s heard the same disturbing rumors coming out of the east,” said Marco, clearly not wanting to discuss the matter in front of Valentina.
Marco was a firm believer in providing the women and children in his pack as peaceful, serene, and happy a life as he could make. Should trouble ever be headed for their doorstep, he would share what they needed to know. Until then he wanted to allow them to enjoy all that they had.
“What rumors?” asked Valentina.
“Just the usual saber rattling,” said Giovanni, glossing over the matter in an effort to reassure her. “Youch,” Giovanni said, growling at his mate.
Marco laughed as did Luca. Valentina was well known for kicking her mate under the table.
“It’s not funny, Marco,” said Valentina, trying to keep her tone to her alpha respectful. “If you aren’t going to tell me, fine, but don’t assume I’m so stupid.”
Giovanni reached over to take her hand. “I’m sorry, cara. You are right. There are some ugly rumors starting to come out of the eastern countries. Things we do not want you or any of the others to worry about.”
“We will keep you all safe,” said Marco.
“Don’t you think we know that?” she said. “I’m sorry I kicked you, Gio. I just don’t like it when you treat me like I’m an idiot.”
He leaned over and kissed her. “And I am sorry for making you feel that way. I promise if the rumors get confirmed I will share them with you on the condition that you do not share the information with anyone.”
She returned his kiss and said, “Thank you, Gio. Anything you tell me I will keep to myself… unless of course our alpha and omega get off their proverbial asses and go find themselves mates.”
Giovanni laughed as Marco and Luca only barely managed not to spit what they were drinking.
Marco laughed and shook his finger at Valentina. “You have a very naughty mate, Giovanni.”
“I know, Alpha, but what am I to do? I love and adore her and she knows it. It’s a dangerous thing for a mate to know,” he said, chuckling.
Marco smiled at them. He envied Giovanni his mate. Valentina could be extremely mischievous when she wanted and often tried Giovanni’s patience, but she loved him deeply and would do anything to see him happy.
Marco took her hand in his and kissed it. “When I am lucky enough to find my fated mate, I will have her wedded, bedded, and with child before you can teach her to be naughty.”
Valentina giggled. “If she is your fated mate, it will be she who is doing the teaching.”
Luca and Giovanni laughed. “She’s probably right, you know,” said Luca.
Marco chuckled. “She probably is. I keep seeing her in my dreams. I will recognize her when I see her, but she keeps evading me—something I will take her to task for down the road.”
“Marco, when you’re through with breakfast, I’d like a bit of your time before the Welsh wolf shows up and you two start sampling my best wine,” said Luca.
Marco grinned. “My time is yours. I just want to ensure the rest of the staff is ready for Griffin’s arrival. I think he may be with us for a while. He didn’t sound too good when last we talked.”