Though her heart was breaking, Angelina had kept her composure during the respectful, subdued gathering. Her father, Roberto Romano, head of the powerful Romano crime family, had passed away from a sudden massive coronary. The funeral had been excruciatingly difficult, and now home with colleagues and friends, she had shaken hands, kissed cheeks, and accepted hugs from those closest to her. But Carmine Caruso had yet to make an appearance.
His absence had not gone unnoticed.
It would soon be time for the guests to leave.
They’d been friends when they were kids, even attracted to each other as teenagers, but she had no doubt Carmine would try to take over her family, and if he didn’t show up, it could be interpreted as a blatant act of disrespect. She couldn’t let him get the upper hand. Needing time alone to think, she moved slowly from the elegant lounge and headed down the hall to her father’s study. Pushing open the arched double doors and entering his office, she inhaled the faint odor of his favorite cigars.
Heat burned the back of her throat.
“You said I was ready,” she murmured, finally allowing tears to slip down her cheeks as she ambled to his oversized antique desk, “but you were so honored and revered. How can I possibly live up to your legacy?”
Running her fingertips across the smooth, glossy flame mahogany, she stared at his chair. Just ten short days before, he’d risen to his feet and told her the time had come for her to give it a test drive. She’d laughed out loud.
It was only two days later he’d suffered a severe coronary.
“You left us too soon,” she muttered, wiping the back of her hand across her wet face.
“If he’d lived to be a hundred, you’d feel the same.”
She immediately recognized the deep baritone voice.
He’d dared to enter hallowed ground.
Taking a quick, short breath, she gathered her wits and turned.
His muscled physique was clearly evident beneath his perfectly tailored charcoal gray suit, and his mesmerizing chocolate-brown eyes suggested the rumors she’d heard were true. Any woman lucky enough to end up in bed with Carmine Caruso was gifted with dark salacious surprises.
“You finally decided to grace us with your presence,” she said sarcastically, pushing the decadent thoughts from her mind. “You can’t fool me, Carmine. I’ve known you my whole life. The lateness of your arrival is by design. You wanted to get the tongues wagging, but your lack of respect has backfired. The only comments I heard were disparaging.”
“You’re wrong, I—”
“I’m not wrong,” she snapped. “Everything you do is premeditated, including your uninvited and unwelcome appearance in this room. Your father was the same, always plotting, planning, and scheming.”
“So was yours,” he retorted, “and we both know it comes with the territory, but I arrived late because I had urgent business.”
“Whatever,” she mumbled with a wave of her hand. “I really don’t give a shit.”
“Is that right?” he challenged, raising a single wicked eyebrow.
“Carmine, you should be in the living room with everyone else. You have no business entering my father’s office uninvited, or rather, my office,” she added pointedly.
Tilting his head to the side, he began moving slowly toward her. “Angelina, when I walked through the front door I saw you leave the lounge and come down here,” he said calmly, then his lips curled in the hint of a smile. “I have a knack for perfect timing.”
“I’d say you have a knack for crappy timing,” she quipped testily. “Go to the lounge, say your hellos and offer your fake condolences, then slither back under your rock.”
“That’s no way to speak to a guest, certainly not this guest.”
“First, I’ll speak to you—and anyone else—as I see fit. Second, I didn’t ask you to come in here, so you’re not a guest, you’re an unwanted intruder. Third, regardless of your high opinion of yourself, there’s nothing special about you.”
The hint of his smile suddenly turned into a wide grin.
“You find that amusing?” she snapped. “Never mind, just leave, or do you want to be thrown out?”
“In the words of the famous bard,” he said softly, continuing to draw closer, “the lady doth protest too much.”
“For fuck’s sake, I’m not interested in anything you have to say,” she spat, her voice rising, “especially not today. Go away. I won’t ask again.”
“I’ll leave, but in a minute. I’m here for a quick, but very important conversation.”
She glanced at her watch.
“You have sixty seconds.”
“That’s about all the time I’ll need,” he remarked, suddenly closing the space between them. “I’m the boss of this family starting now,” he declared solemnly, looming over her. “Make it easy on everyone. Be a good girl and move aside peacefully, or—”
Her arm flew up from her side, and her hand landed sharply across his right cheek. For a split second, he looked stunned, then leaning his face close to hers, his dark eyes narrowed. A shard of fear rippled down her spine.
“Your name may be Angelina, but you’re no angel.”
“And your middle name may be Christopher, but you’re no saint.”
Abruptly grabbing her arm and jerking it behind her back, he spun her around, shoved her over the desk, and delivered a volley of hard, stinging smacks on her gyrating backside. Though she wanted to scream for help, she didn’t dare let anyone find her in such a humiliating situation.
“You have no business thinking you can run this family,” he stated fiercely, his flattened palm continuing to deliver hard slaps from cheek to cheek. “You’re just a spoiled little princess with a big ego who needs her butt spanked and to be put in her place.”
“And you’re a fucking Neanderthal!”
“Yeah, well, maybe I am, but your ass is mine,” he snapped, whisking his hand across her sit spot. “I’ve got you, Angie, and there’s no escape. Give it up, or things will get real bad for you real fast.”
“Fuck you, asshole.”
“Stop with the foul mouth and get it through your head! This is a man’s world! Strutting around in your stilettos won’t cut it!”
Triumph rippled through her body.
He had just provided her means of escape.
Turning her head to the side, she wriggled just enough to see his shoes, then lifting her foot, using all her might, she stomped the sharp point of her high heel on top of the soft Italian leather loafer. Letting out a shocked, angry grunt and jolting backwards, he loosened his hold on her wrist.
The split second was all she needed.
Pivoting from beneath him, she darted behind the desk, yanked open the top drawer, and snatched up her father’s revolver.
“Stop!” she shouted, raising it just as he started toward her. “I swear to God, I’ll pull this trigger.”
“Now you’re being foolish,” he growled. “Did you forget I’m Don Caruso?”
“Did you forget who I am? And what the hell is this Don business? You’ve been watching too many movies.”
“You’re just pissed because you can never have that title. What are you going to call yourself? A Donness?”
“I repeat, asshole,” she spat, “did you forget who I am? You inherited a title. I was born with royal blood running through my veins. According to my father, I’m a princess, a real princess. You can call yourself whatever you want, but you’re still just a commoner. My ancestors battled and won, and so will I. Your days as head of your family will soon come to an end, and your organization will fall under the protection of the Romano umbrella.”
“In your dreams,” Carmine scoffed. “If you honestly think you can do battle with me and come out victorious, you’re deluding yourself.”
“You should never have come into this office,” she barked, extending her arms and placing both hands around the handle of the gun. “Back up. I don’t want your blood splattering over my desk.”
“The little girl is going to shoot me? I don’t think so.”
Swiftly lowering the gun, she pulled the trigger, hitting the floor inches in front of him.
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” he shouted, jumping back. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“This little girl knows how to shoot. Now get the hell out of here before I blow your cock off.”
The door suddenly burst open.
Bruno Santori, her father’s underboss, dashed into the room with his gun drawn, quickly followed by his son, Junior.
“It’s okay, I’m fine,” she said hastily, keeping her eyes on her arch enemy and hoping her voice didn’t betray just how unnerved she was. “Escort this asshole to his car, and make sure he understands he’d better not set foot in this house again.”
“I’ll be back, you can put money on it,” Carmine barked, “and not only will I finish whipping your ass, you’ll be enjoying my company in all sorts of ways.”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Bruno growled, abruptly landing a fist in Carmine’s gut. “Show some respect.”
Carmine barely buckled, and as he continued to glare at her, a chill pricked her skin. The punch should have knocked the wind out of him, but he’d barely moved, and she was sure her spiked heel had left him in pain, yet all she saw reflected in his eyes was grim determination.
“Time to go,” Bruno grunted, grabbing Carmine’s arm.
“Hold on!” she said sharply. “Bruno, give us a minute. Wait outside the door.”
A worried frown crossed his face, but turning on his heel, Bruno marched from the room with his son.
“Put that fucking gun down,” Carmine demanded, though looking as calm and controlled as he did when he’d first walked in.
“Would you turn your back on a rattlesnake?”
He paused, then took a step forward.
“Angelina, you said you wanted a minute. The clock’s ticking, say what you want to say.”
“You and I are going down the hall and entering the lounge together.”
His eyes narrowed.
“You know your appearance is mandatory,” she continued. “Walking in side by side will settle everyone’s nerves. Regardless of how we feel about each other, the people in that room need reassurance.”
“You do realize, even if we put on a show, the peace our fathers brokered is—”
“Broken, thanks to you,” she said angrily, cutting him off, “but my guests don’t know that, not yet, and this isn’t the day for them to find out. My father deserves better. He deserves respect.”
Carmine nodded his head. “Okay, Angelina, but I will finish what I started. You can take that to the bank,” he warned, and before she could respond, he turned on his heel and opened the door. “Come back in, fellas.”
His back was to her for only a minute, but she used it to catch her breath. In spite of her bravado, the shocking, unexpected spanking had left her shaken and humiliated. Her heart still raced, and her hot backside stung.
“Mr. Caruso and I will be joining my guests,” she declared, placing the gun back in the drawer. “Escort us down the hall, but wait a few minutes before following us into the lounge. Are you ready, Carmine?”
“I’m always ready,” he said, smiling at her as he extended his elbow.
Ignoring the gesture, she walked out ahead of him, but feeling his eyes on her hips, she immediately regretted the decision. Abruptly pausing, she looked over her shoulder just in time to see his eyes dart up.
“Stay at my side,” she said briskly.
As he stepped up beside her, she thought she saw the hint of a smirk, but she couldn’t be sure, so she didn’t comment, and they continued down the hall. Entering the lounge, she could see the surprise and relief of the gathered throng. As her guests began walking up to greet Carmine, she moved slowly across the room to the antique liquor cabinet. Pouring a splash of aged cognac into a brandy snifter, she brought it to her lips, took a drink, and savored the warm, soothing liquor gliding down her throat.
She would have to retaliate.
His rude, embarrassing assault could not go unanswered.
“Are you all right, Angie?” Bruno asked quietly as he approached.
“Yes, Bruno, I’m fine.”
“What did the sonofabitch want?”
“To cause trouble, but we’ll discuss it later,” she said softly, taking another drink. “Today is about saying goodbye to a great man.”
“He taught you well. I know you’re up to the task.”
“I appreciate your vote of confidence, Bruno, and I’ll do my best, but there will never be another leader, man or woman, like Roberto Romano.”
“You’ll carve out your own greatness, and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it to be true.”
“I’ll certainly give it my all,” she said with a sigh. “Call Emile’s and book the private dining room for Saturday night. Caruso’s visit has made one thing clear. I need to assert myself as head of this family, and that means addressing the troops. You know who to invite.”
A smile curled his lips.
“Why the grin, Bruno?”
“You’re doing it already.”
“Holding your finger to the wind and looking ahead.”
Shooting a covert glance across the room, Carmine studied his nemesis. Her long red hair was slightly tousled, and her expensive black dress that had hung so elegantly around her curvaceous body when he’d entered her office was slightly askew.
The recent memory of having her under his control and bent over her father’s desk brought a satisfied smile to his lips and stirred his cock.
But he’d made a rare mistake.
Angelina Romano was tougher and smarter than he’d expected.
He’d only seen her as the sassy spitfire he’d known since they were kids. Flaming hair, sassy attitude, and ridiculous curves.
The girl he’d had a crush on through his teens.
She’d been forbidden fruit, which had only served to make her more desirable.
An idea suddenly popped into his head.
There were many ways to commence battle.
Even more to ensure victory.
The long, sad day finally over, Angelina wandered through her expansive, elegant home. Though her parents had hoped for a large family, and built the home with six en-suite bedrooms, she’d been their only child. Hers would now be the only one in full-time use. But with Carmine’s threat hanging over her head, she had asked Bruno and a tough young bodyguard she’d trust with her life named Patrick to stay in the two bedrooms on the ground floor. While the house boasted a state of the art security system, she’d sleep better having the men downstairs.
Moving slowly into her father’s den and across to the fireplace, she pushed the button on the wall and watched the logs blaze to life. Gazing at the hypnotic flames, she touched her backside and recalled Carmine’s unexpected assault. The sting had long since gone, but she was pretty sure his foot would still be bothering him. When she’d shared a drink with Bruno after everyone had left, he’d demanded she retaliate immediately. She’d shaken her head and quoted her father.
“Think beyond the moment and never act in haste, that’s what he taught me,” she’d said calmly, “but don’t worry, Bruno. I’m determined to make him pay for what he did today. I just have to figure out the price.”
Taking in a long breath, she settled into one of the two wingback burgundy leather chairs in front of the hearth. She and her father had often sat there together, enjoying the fire and sipping brandy as they discussed the affairs of the moment. Moving her eyes from the empty seat to his portrait hanging over the Italian marble mantelpiece, she sought guidance from his image.
“You warned me,” she murmured. “You predicted Carmine would make a fast move, but I didn’t expect he’d do it today, especially not under our roof. I should have been better prepared. I won’t make that mistake again.”
The flickering flames seemed to make her father’s face come alive, and for a moment she thought his lips had curled in approval. Though she knew it was just her imagination, it warmed her heart.
“I have to strike back the same way, but harder,” she continued as if he was still with her, then lowering her eyes to the flames, she thought back to her childhood friend.
He was now her enemy.
He’d waltzed into her office as if he belonged there.
Controlled, calm, and annoyingly imperious.
She unexpectedly caught her breath.
Though she hated to admit it, he’d also been devilishly sexy.
She understood why women found him so attractive. He wasn’t just ridiculously good looking; he carried himself with a self-assurance and oozed seductive charm.
A frustrated sigh escaped her lips. If she ever needed a man in her life, it was now, but when she met someone she found attractive, as soon as they learned she was the daughter of the infamous Roberto Romano, they’d slowly, nervously pull back. The man of her dreams had nothing to prove. He was comfortable in his own skin. A tough guy with a kind heart who respected who she was, and was not in the least intimidated by her wealth and power.
Her eyes began to grow heavy.
Fatigue swept through her bones.
Pushing herself up from the chair, she raised her eyes up to the portrait.
“Goodnight, Dad, I love you, and don’t worry, I’m determined to keep our family safe. I won’t let you down.”
As she turned to leave the room, she could almost hear his whispered reply.
I know you will, Angel. Be brave and think smart.
Climbing the stairs and entering her bedroom, she kicked off her shoes, peeling off her clothes and letting them drop to the floor as she moved slowly to the bed. Sliding between the expensive Egyptian cotton sheets, she did what she always did when she had a burning question. Closing her eyes, she prayed for an answer.
The Caruso compound sat twenty minutes out of the city on ten lush acres. Dominic Caruso, Carmine’s father, had been a horse racing enthusiast. When he’d started his own stud farm, he was thrilled to discover his eldest son shared his passion. In the two years since Dominic had passed away, Carmine had expanded the business. Graham Chandler, Dominic’s horse trainer, was now exclusive and doubled as the barn manager, and an exercise rider and several workers lived on the property.
Watching the horses graze during the day settled Carmine’s nerves, and walking through the barn late at night, smelling the hay and listening to the horses softly nicker, soothed his soul.
When he’d left the gathering to honor Angelina’s much loved and greatly esteemed father, he’d picked up one of his favorite girlfriends and enjoyed dinner at a small Italian restaurant called Napoli. Several years before, the owner and chef, a portly, jovial man named Lorenzo Rossi, had overspent on renovations and ended up in financial trouble. Carmine had stepped in and saved the day. But for a price. He now used it to launder money, store illegal liquor before it was sold, and have private meetings after hours.
Though the dinner was delicious, the cabernet velvety smooth, and Stella, the shapely woman sitting across from him, sexy as hell, Carmine couldn’t shake Angelina from his thoughts.
She had surprised him.
She’d always been smart and savvy, but in a million years he hadn’t expected her to physically get the better of him. Stomping her stiletto heel into his soft Italian leather loafer had taken a cool head, and at the time, he’d been heating up her backside with gusto.
His foot still throbbed.
Did her ass still sting?
He doubted it.
She was a force to be reckoned with.
Taking over the Romano family would require all his cunning, and he needed to move fast.
“Carmine, did you hear what I said?”
Whipping Angelina’s ass had left him with a raging erection, but as Stella’s chirpy voice snatched his attention, he realized calling her had been a mistake.
“Stella, honey, I have to go, it’s an emergency,” he declared, abruptly rising to his feet and peeling bills from a gold money clip. “Here’s fifty bucks. Call a cab.”
“You’ve been weird since you picked me up,” she remarked, staring up at him with big eyes. “Is it my dress? My new haircut? Something I said?”
“It’s just business, babe,” he muttered, leaning forward and kissing her on the cheek. “You look great. I’ll call you.”
Glancing across at his two bodyguards sitting at a nearby table, he jerked his head toward the door. Quickly jumping up, they hurried past him, checked the street, then returned and escorted him into the limousine. Though he didn’t think Angelina would put a price on his head, he wasn’t taking any chances. As the car sped through the late night city streets, then hit the freeway and headed out of town, he sipped bourbon and thought about the scene in her father’s office.
Though spanking her had been in his head, the act had been spontaneous. When he’d walked through the front door and noticed her heading down the hall by herself, he’d paused his step to admire her sexy, shapely black-stockinged legs. His eyes had quickly traveled up to her curvaceous backside, and watching her enter her father’s office, the opportunity had been too good to pass up.
She’d been shocked by his entrance, and their verbal sparring had been like foreplay. The situation couldn’t have been more perfect. He’d wanted to convince her she was no match for him, show her who was boss, and humiliate her into submission. Though he’d managed to bend her over the massive desk and wallop her ass, he hadn’t left victorious. But she hadn’t won either. Round one had ended in a tie.
I’ll be back, you can put money on it, and not only will I finish whipping your ass, you’ll be enjoying my company in all sorts of ways.
He’d meant every word, and his cock stirred at the thought of round two. Though he wasn’t sure where it would take place, he’d pull up her dress, yank down her panties, smack her bare ass until it was glowing red, then fuck her until she was seized by a climax and screaming his name. He was known as a man of his word, and that wasn’t about to change.
“Where to, boss?” the driver asked.
Jolted from his thoughts, Carmine jerked up his head. “Drop me at the stables and leave,” he replied, startled to find they were rolling through the gates of his compound. “I’ll walk back.”
As the car drove past the majestic house, and followed the lane down to the barn and white-fenced pastures, he finished the last of his bourbon. He knew what must be done, and he had the plan. He just needed to calculate its implementation.
The limousine pulled to a stop. Climbing out before his driver had a chance to open the door, Carmine grabbed his overcoat from the back seat, slipping it on as he hurried into the barn.
Two dim lamps cast a low glow over the aisle.
Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, he inhaled the rich aroma.
Pine shavings, hay, and the unique horse smell he loved.
Moving slowly past the oversized stalls, he looked through the bars and admired his precious equines, stopping when he reached Magic. In spite of her breeding, the dark bay mare would never be on the track. She was small, and from the day she’d arrived, even though she was a little on the wild side, he’d fallen in love with her and named her Magic.
She had no place in a racing stable, but quickly became Carmine’s pet, and it appeared the feelings were mutual. She never failed to nicker when he approached, and if he entered her paddock she’d follow him around. She was lying on her side, sound asleep, but as if sensing his presence, she opened her eyes and raised her head.
“Go back to sleep, little girl,” he murmured, feeling his heart swell.
His mind flashed back to Angelina.
He suddenly knew exactly what to do.
Bolting upright, Angelina’s eyes popped open, the lucid dream still fresh in her mind’s eye. She and Carmine were jockeys galloping neck and neck to the finish line. Instinctively knowing the vision carried a message, she hurried from her bed and grabbed her laptop from her desk. Her heart still racing, she moved swiftly back between the sheets and propped herself up against the padded headboard.
But as she lifted the lid, a frown crossed her brow.
Unable to remember the name of Carmine’s stable, she typed Carmine Christopher Caruso into the search engine. To her joy and relief, Triple C Farms was listed on the first page. Though his passion for his horses was no secret, clicking on the link and moving through the images, she was astonished to see him so relaxed and happy. She’d just found his Achilles heel. The question was how could she use it against him?
Continuing to peruse the pictures, one in particular caught her attention. He was perched on the edge of his desk in his home office, but her eye was drawn to the wall behind him. Among the various paintings were several horse portraits. One in particular caught her eye.
A smile curled her lips.
She suddenly knew exactly what to do.
It was Saturday morning, two days since Carmine had dueled with Angelina. His foot had throbbed for several hours, he’d watched an ugly purple bruise bloom to life, but the pain had passed. Standing in his office at the paned window staring down at the stables, he wanted to march down, find a crop, and carry it with him ready for the next time they crossed paths. But as the thought lingered, he realized he’d much prefer reddening her ass with a long, hard hand spanking. Landing his palm against her naked ass would be immensely satisfying. When her butt was glowing red, he’d slip his fingers between her legs, tease her to the brink, then spank her again, repeating the torment for a very long time.
A grim smile crossed his lips. He was determined she’d surrender the Romano family empire.
The vet’s van drove up to the barn and rolled to a stop, breaking into Carmine’s dark thoughts. Moving from the room and following the wide hallway to the kitchen, he stepped out the back door, climbed into his golf cart, and zipped down the driveway.
Peter Williams, DVM was affectionately referred to as Doc. He’d taken care of Carmine’s expensive equines for many years, and Carmine trusted him implicitly. Continuing down the slight slope, he watched the elderly vet slide open the back doors of his rolling medical unit.
“Hey, Doc,” Carmine said, stopping next to him. “Are you here to check on Lucky Slim?”
“Yep, he should be back to work by next week.”
“I need you first.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Jump in and I’ll drive us around to the feed room. This is private, and you might need your X-ray machine.”
“What do you think you’ve broken?” Doc asked, eyeing him up and down.
“Me? I don’t think I’ve broke anything, but Nellie isn’t convinced. I promised her I’d make sure you’d look at it.”
“If you’d broken your foot you wouldn’t be sitting there calmly talking to me.”
“Exactly, but you know Nellie. She’s a worrier.”
“I’ll come back for the equipment if I need it,” Doc replied, picking up his bag and climbing into the cart. “How did it happen?”
“A woman weaponized her stiletto,” Carmine replied with a chuckle.
Doc joined him, laughing out loud.
“Hey, it felt like a fucking knife at the time,” Carmine exclaimed, “and it throbbed for a while, but now it’s fine. If it wasn’t for the bruise, I wouldn’t even know anything had happened.”
“I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes if you ever catch up to her. Ha! Her shoes,” Doc added, continuing to laugh at his joke, “that’s pretty good. When did this happen?”
“A couple of days ago,” Carmine muttered, stopping at the door of the large outbuilding that housed the hay.
Walking inside and sitting on a bale, Carmine slipped off his loafer and peeled off his sock.
“I can see why Nellie was worried,” Doc grunted, staring down at the angry bruise and sitting beside him. “Lift your leg up here.”
As Carmine raised his foot and placed it on Doc’s lap, the vet leaned over and studied the
“You’re right, this is just a bad bruise, but if she’d stomped on a bone she could have broken it.”
“Should I do anything? I mean, it doesn’t bother me.”
“The injury isn’t serious, but I’d still recommend rice to be on the safe side, at least for a day or two,” Doc said solemnly.
“Rice? White rice, brown rice? How do I use it?”
“Not that kind of rice. It’s short for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Stay off it, ice it for twenty minutes every few hours, keep it wrapped, that’s the compression, and elevated. It’s an ounce of prevention more than anything, and it will speed up the healing process. I’ll give you some anti-inflammatories, but I also have a magic wand. It’s a pain in the ass, I know, but that’s what I suggest.”
“She’ll be the one with the pain in her ass when I get my hands on her,” Carmine declared angrily as Doc opened his bag.
“No doubt,” Doc remarked, reaching in and retrieving a bandage and a small red cylinder.
“What’s the magic wand?”
“This,” Doc announced, lifting up what looked like a deodorant stick. “It’s CBD cream. Marvelous stuff, and Nellie can bandage your foot?”
“Is all this really necessary?”
“Just for a day or so, and it will make Nellie feel better.”
“Well, there is that,” Carmine reluctantly agreed. “She’ll love it. She should have been a nurse. I told her a horse stepped on me.”
“Did it work?” Doc asked with a grin as he moved the balm over and around
“As far as I know,” Carmine replied, but hearing his phone chime, he quickly lifted it from his pocket. “Sorry, Doc,” he muttered, checking the screen. It was Brody, the guard at the gate. “Talk to me, Brody,” Carmine said as Doc continued his work.
“Uh, boss, you have a visitor. Angelina Romano is here.”
Carmine’s heart skipped. “Who’s with her?”
“Bruno Santori, and another guy I don’t know.”
“Tell Buster to walk with the car to the motor court, then escort her into the library and stay with her.”
“Just her? What about the other two?”
“Bruno can stay with her.”
“Yes, Mr. Caruso.”
“Is that her, the culprit?” Doc asked as Carmine ended the call.
“How the hell did you—?”
“Your reaction was almost palpable, at least to me.”
“It was? Am I that transparent?”
“Carmine, I’ve known you since you were running around this barn with your legs over a toy horse, and who was it who talked you through your first broken heart?”
“My heart wasn’t broken,” Carmine retorted as Doc finished his work and handed him a bottle of pills.
“If you say so. If you do have any pain, take one of these, and don’t mix them with alcohol.”
“She was the first girl who turned me down,” Carmine continued, pulling his sock back on. “It pissed me off, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well, she did the smart thing. Dating Roberto Romano’s daughter would have been a bad idea, especially at that age. Speaking of which, how was the gathering after the funeral? I assume you attended.”
“Yeah, I did, and it was about what you’d expect,” Carmine replied, sliding his foot back into his loafer.
“Roberto was a force to be reckoned with, and if your foot is any indication, his beautiful daughter will be too. I assume she’s responsible.”
“What makes you say that?”
“She’s the only woman I can think of capable of getting the better of you,” Doc replied with a grin.
“She just got lucky,” Carmine grunted as they left the feed room and climbed into the cart.
“Speaking of beautiful women, how’s Magic?”
“She’s great,” Carmine answered, breaking into a smile as he drove them to Doc’s van. “In fact I’m going to swing by and see her before I go back to the house.”
“And make your visitor twiddle her thumbs for a while?”
“No comment,” Carmine replied, but shot the vet a wink as he climbed out. “Thanks for the help. I’ll see you later.”
“Any time,” Doc said with a warm smile, then headed into the barn.
Turning to glance up at the house, he saw Angelina’s limousine parking in the motor court. Showing up at his compound without calling took moxie, and though he was eager to find out what was behind her sudden appearance, he wanted to keep her waiting.
Driving quickly across to the paddocks and coming to an abrupt stop, he let out a whistle, then grabbed a few horse treats from the small storage compartment. Magic lifted her head, whinnied, then trotted up to greet him as he climbed out and stood at the fence.
“Hey, little girl,” he said, grinning as she gobbled up the cookies. “I won’t be able to call you that much longer. You’re growing fast.”
The filly nudged him for more, and he obliged. Feeling calmer and ready to deal with the wily woman and her surprise visit, he settled back into the cart and sped up to his house.
Stepping from the back seat of the limousine, Angelina had paused to stare down at the green and white barn and white-fenced paddocks. She’d always envied the stunning equestrian compound, and though it had been several years since she’d last visited, the familiar feelings of jealousy rippled through her.
She’d been about to turn and walk to the house when she’d spotted a golf cart speeding toward the pristine paddocks. Recognizing Carmine and seeing him come to a quick stop, she’d lingered to watch. As he’d climbed out and stood at the fence, a dark bay filly with white socks and a white diamond in the middle of her forehead trotted up to greet him.
Watching the idyllic scene, a chill pricked her skin.
The timing could not have been more perfect.
Could her father be reaching out from beyond the grave?
“This way, Miss Romano.”
Turning around and facing Buster, Carmine’s thick-necked, muscled soldier, she nodded her head, then looked back at Patrick. His muscled physique was almost as impressive as Carmine’s thug.
“Patrick, stay with the car,” she said to her driver, but the young man doubled as her bodyguard, and his forehead creased with concern. “It’s okay, Patrick. There’s nothing to worry about.”
With Bruno at her side carrying a box wrapped in glossy black paper and sporting a large gold bow, she followed Buster to the house, making a mental note of the vehicles in the courtyard. Two gray vans were parked side by side, along with a Lamborghini limousine.
Entering the house, she guessed she and Bruno would be taken to the library adjacent to Carmine’s office. His father had been a world-class collector, and the masculine room with coffered ceilings boasted row upon row of books. As she predicted, she and Bruno were guided down a hallway and ushered inside.
“Don Caruso will be with you shortly,” Buster declared, then positioned himself against a wall with his hands clasped in front of him.
As Angelina scanned the impressive display of literary works, she wondered how many millions of dollars had been initially invested, and their increase in value over the years.
The minutes ticked slowly by.
She’d expected that too.
Strolling past the books lining the far back wall, she noticed the shelving didn’t run all the way across as the others did, but was broken into three sections.
“He’s ready to see us,” Bruno declared, walking up behind her.
“I didn’t hear a proclamation from his sentry,” she remarked.
“He didn’t make one. He touched his ear then nodded at me.”
“Ah, I see,” she murmured, reaching for the package Bruno was holding. “I’ll take that. You stay here and keep the gorilla company.”
“Are you sure?”
“I want to be alone with Carmine.”
“After what happened, I don’t—”
“I’ll be fine,” she said firmly, cutting him off, then grinning, she added, “but if I scream, come running.”
Shaking his head as he handed her the package, he escorted her to the door Buster held open. Moving past them and stepping into Carmine’s inner sanctum, she found him behind his desk, but quickly checked the room to make sure no one else was there before smiling across at him.
“Hello, Carmine, please don’t get up. I’m sure your foot is sore.”
She’d prodded the bear, but he didn’t respond.
“Hello, Angelina. I suppose one surprise visit deserves another, but I see you’re bearing gifts.”
“A gift, singular,” she retorted, moving behind the desk and placing it in front of him.
“Will it explode?”
“Don’t you trust me?” she asked innocently, tilting her head to the side as she walked around to the front and sat down.
“Not for a second,” he quipped.
“So—you do have a modicum of intelligence after all,” she declared, then laughed.
“She brings me gifts—excuse me, a gift—then insults me,” he muttered, shaking his head as he removed the bow. “Is this an apology? Did that spanking get through to you, or is there another reason behind this rare display of generosity?”
He’d prodded her right back, and she couldn’t help but grin.
“I’ll tell you my reasons after you open it,” she replied, studying a large photograph of a pretty dark bay filly hanging on the wall behind him.
When she’d studied the picture of Carmine in the magazine article on the internet, she’d zoomed in and spotted the small brass nameplate on the ornate frame. It read Magic, and she’d liked it instantly.
“Let me guess,” he said, ripping away the paper and revealing a box bearing the name of a famous porcelain manufacturer. “A cup and saucer to improve my manners?”
Her eyes darted back to him. “Neanderthals don’t have any manners to improve.”
He chuckled. “That was a good one, Angelina.”
“Wait,” she said sharply. “Before we go any further I want to clear something up. When we were kids you called me Angie. Why did that change when I came back from college?”
“Will I still get my gift if I choose not to tell you?”
“Carmine, I’m serious.”
She held her breath.
This was step one.
Get him talking about their past.
It would help him relax and drop his guard.
When they were kids, the rivalry was left to their fathers.
“So…?” she pressed. “Why did I go from being Angie to Angelina?”
“I guess it doesn’t matter now,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “It came from Dad. He insisted I keep my distance from you, and he said Angie was too familiar.”
“Interesting,” she murmured, though not surprised.
“Your turn, why did you—never mind,” he said quickly.
“No, you can’t do that,” she said vehemently. “Why did I what?”
“It’s nothing, though I did find it odd at the time.”
“Stop talking in riddles and just tell me.”
“About a month before you were due to leave for college, I asked you to join me for a movie. You told me to take a hike, it was weird,” he said with a frown, then hastily added, “now I wouldn’t give a shit—but of course, now I wouldn’t ask.”
“Because you know I’d kick your ass to the curb again,” she retorted.
“Correction, because we are no longer friends, though now I have to wonder if we ever were.”
She barely managed to suppress a grin.
Things were going exactly as she’d planned.
“So, Angelina—sorry, Angie—soothe my curiosity,” he continued. “Why did you give me the brushoff after we’d already been hanging out together?”
“Apparently our fathers must have had a rare meeting of the minds. Dad put his foot down. His exact words were no way, no how. I’ll send you to boarding school if I have to, but you’ll never spend time alone with Carmine Caruso.”
“No shit,” she repeated. “Is your curiosity soothed?”
He nodded. “It is, and so is my teenage ego.”
“Good, now that that’s out of the way, open the box.”
“You’re giving me an order?”
“You bet your ass. I don’t have all day.”
“Don’t push your luck, Angie,” he warned, lowering his voice.
“Or what? You’ll spank me again? I doubt you can hobble around your desk fast enough to catch me,” she said with a sassy grin, then leaning forward in her chair, she added, “but I’d love to watch you try.”
“Be careful what you wish for, little girl.”
Though she was putting up a brave front, butterflies had suddenly burst to life in her stomach, and she needed a moment to gather her wits.
“What would be the fun in that?” she finally countered. “But enough of this stimulating conversation; look inside.”
Dropping his gaze back to the carton and removing the lid, Carmine couldn’t have been more pleased. Assuming the gift wasn’t booby-trapped, Angelina was playing right into his hands, but discovering a glossy wooden box, he caught his breath. Across the top sat a gleaming gold plate, engraved with Magic’s name.
His pulse ticking up, he lifted it out, opened the hinged lid, and discovered a porcelain statuette of his beloved filly. Astounded, he gently removed it from the foam padding and placed it on his desk, then raised his eyes and looked across at Angelina. She was beaming, and her blue eyes sparkled like a pair of brilliant diamonds.
“I’m not even going to ask you how you know about her,” he managed, still taken aback.
“It wasn’t rocket science,” she replied with a grin, pointing to the image of Magic in the gold frame behind him. “I saw a magazine article about you, and there was a photograph of you in this office. I spotted that picture in the background.”
“I honestly don’t know what to say. This is just gorgeous, but… why?”
She didn’t reply, but rose to her feet, moved slowly around the desk, then perched on the edge and looked down at him.
“Carmine, I don’t want a war, and I’m sure you don’t either. This is a peace offering. I want us to find our way back to the innocence of our youth.”
“I have a better idea,” he murmured.
Swiftly grabbing her wrist and jerking her into his lap, he fisted her hair, pressed his lips on hers, and devoured her mouth in a crushing kiss.