SECRETS OF BELLA TERRA: Bella Terra #1
New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd “gives readers everything they want.” Now this romantic suspense star introduces the Di Luca brothers—and the family rivalry that could destroy everything their ancestors built…
Dark, brooding Rafe Di Luca returns to Bella Terra for one reason: to find out who attacked his beloved grandmother … and why. Owner of one of the world’s leading security firms, he has his prime suspect: beautiful Brooke Petersson, manager of Bella Terra. Years ago, he and Brooke shared a powerful passion…then he walked out of her life. She swore the affair was over forever, yet they find themselves drawn into an erotic web neither can escape. Now Rafe must decide if he should trust the desire between them—or if seduction is her revenge…
Visit Bella Terra … the best in masterful suspense.
Author’s Note: While visiting Sonoma Valley in the California wine country, I loved the long, dry, warm valleys surrounded by forested mountains. I loved the vines that stretched for miles in every direction. I loved following a twisting road to another small, hidden vineyard where the vintner served wines and small talk. I loved the history I learned, and more than anything, I loved the strong sense of family and friendship that united the community. The more time I spent in California, the more I envisioned a series about a close-knit family who joins together to solve an eighty-year-old mystery involving an ancient feud, a precious bottle of wine, and a priceless pink diamond. Here is the first except from the first book in the Scarlet Deception series, SECRETS OF BELLA TERRA. Enjoy.
Tradition. Tradition had governed the Di Luca family for an eternity.
Tradition had governed Bella Valley for one hundred and twenty years.
Until Brooke Petersson moved to Bella Valley, she’d never seen that kind of tradition at work.
Oh, she understood tradition. Until she was eleven, she was an Air Force brat, and if there was one thing the military did well, it was traditions. But family traditions … not so much. When her mother divorced her father, that broke every tradition and vow Brooke ever imagined. It broke her life and her heart.
But in Bella Valley, Brooke had learned from the Di Lucas that their kind of family traditions were different. The Di Luca family was American, sure. Ippolito Di Luca had immigrated to California in the late nineteenth century, married an Italian girl whose father owned a swathe of land and vineyards in Bella Valley, and every child born to the family since had been born in the US and spoke English as their native tongue.
But the Di Lucas had hung onto the essence of being Italian. They gestured when they talked. They drank wine and ate Italian. Northern Italian, to be specific. Not that the Di Lucas never got Chinese take-out or made a turkey for Thanksgiving, but everyone of them knew their way around a pot of golden, slowly simmering polenta — and God forbid some well-intentioned fool should mention instant polenta. The Di Lucas flirted … Brooke didn’t understand how flirting could be passed down as an Italian tradition, but it was. Every one of the Di Luca men and women used charm like a condiment, to bring flavor and pleasure to a relationship.
The Di Luca traditions meant that when someone got hurt, cards, flowers and phone calls flooded in and the nearest and dearest gathered close.
So when Rafe Di Luca strode through the door into his grandmother’s hospital room, Brooke had been expecting him. Waiting for him. But neither knowledge nor foresight could ease the sweet, familiar shock of recognition. That long stride, that stern profile, that carved body displayed so sweetly in blue denim and black leather…
He nodded at his two brothers.
At thirty-four, Eli was the oldest, the tallest, the least likely to shoot off his mouth and get in a fight — and the most likely to win if he did.
At twenty-eight, Noah was three years younger than Rafe, with the Di Luca family head of curly black hair and a pair of green eyes that brought women to their knees.
The resemblance between the brothers was strong, but Rafe was the son who looked most like his actor-father — heartstoppingly handsome — and behaved least like him, for the dangers he faced every day were not the fevered imaginings of some scriptwriter, but real and terrifying.
Brooke braced herself for the moment when his heated gaze touched her.
He didn’t even glance in her direction.
Even so, the room grew smaller, the air warmer and more concentrated, Brooke's heartbeat slower, stronger, each throb spreading heat and life and pleasure.
So many years had passed since she’d seen him for the first time, on her beginning day of the new school, when he plucked her out of the crowd and summoned her with a jerk of his head. She had giggled like … like the pre-pubescent girl she had been and tagged after him like a love-starved puppy. Even seventeen years later, the memory made her wince.
Today, all Rafe's Di Luca charm was bent on his grandmother.
“Raffaelo, I have been waiting for you.” A trembling smile broke across Sarah Di Luca's face, and she extended her good hand.
Rafe stopped a few feet from the bed and assessed her — broken arm, battered face, an IV in her arm — and shook his head with mocking reproval. “Nonna, how many times have I told you not to get in bar fights?”
For the first time since she’d been attacked, Sarah chuckled. “I learned everything I know about getting in trouble from my grandsons.”
He lowered the silver rail and leaned close, put his cheek against hers and closed his eyes. “You scared me half to death,” he murmured.
Sentiment clogged Brooke's throat. No matter what she thought of Rafe, she knew his adoration for his grandmother ran deep and true.
As he straightened, he smiled at Sarah. “Now — tell me the truth. Why were you in a bar fight?”
“You should see the other guy.” Sarah smiled back, but no eighty-year-old could have a bandage on her head and a cast on her arm without some wear-and-tear, and the flush of happiness Rafe's arrival brought quickly faded.
Rafe saw it, of course. He saw everything. Cradling her hand, he turned to his brothers. “What do we know about the perp?”
“Not a damned thing.” Noah bit off his words. “Nonna was probably unconscious a half hour, which gave him plenty of time to get away. We think she arrived right after he broke in — or rather, walked in, since she never locks her doors —“
“Don’t need to,” she said.
Like male versions of the Fates, the three brothers turned in unison and glared at her.
“This proves you do, Nonna,” Rafe said. To Noah, he said, “Go on.”
“We couldn’t see that the perp disturbed anything,” Noah said. “He hid in the cellar, then rushed out, attacked her and ran away.”
“So he was panicked … or he was sent there to attack her. People do all kinds of heinous things for money, for fun.” All too obviously, Rafe knew what he was talking about. “Did you see him, Nonna?”
She shook her head, and winced. “No. Ski mask. But definitely a big man, white, tall, fit, young. Of course, at my age I think everyone’s young.”
“At your height, you think everyone’s tall, too,” Eli said.
“Come over here so I can swat you.” But Sarah was smiling again, and when Eli leaned over the other side of the bed, she gave him a mocking sock to the chin. “I’d say he was six foot or a little below.”
“Oh, good. That narrows it down to about five thousand guys here in Bella Terra.” Rafe smiled his crooked smile.
Brooke told herself that when he smiled like that, he looked like Novocain was working on one side of his mouth. But that wasn’t true. Instead, in his jeans and black leather jacket, he resembled a tough, half-amused, world-weary Gerard Butler.
“The police said the burglar might be a vagrant,” Noah said.
“Everybody always wants to think it’s a vagrant rather than someone who lives in their nice little town.” Rafe's cynicism grated on Brooke's nerves.
And on Sarah’s, for she stirred restlessly, and winced.
He turned to her right away. “Don’t worry, Nonna. We’ll keep you safe. No one’s going to hurt you again.”
“At home. Promise me I can stay in my own house,” Nonna’s voice quivered and a single tear slid down the soft wrinkled cheek.
That one tear broke the guys.
“I’ll keep you safe in your house,” Rafe promised.
“I know. I trust you.” She smiled tremulously. “I’m not afraid for myself. But if something happened to one of my boys, I couldn’t live with myself.”
Real amusement lit Rafe's face. “I’ll take care of my feeble brothers.”
“Yeah, Nonna, Rafe’ll take care of us.” Eli used sarcasm like a weapon. “Nothing can happen to him. As long as the mugger hits him on the head, Rafe’ll be fine.”
“They have knives. They have guns,” Sarah said fretfully. “Even after all these years, he’s so angry…”
Brooke came slowly to her feet.
The brothers all leaned forward, intent on their grandmother.
“Who, Nonna?” Rafe’s voice was the soft rasp of velvet. “Who are you afraid of?”
“What?” Nonna looked puzzled. “I’m not afraid of anybody. I just want you to be careful.”
The brothers exchanged glances, and nodded. Brooke could almost see the communication between them — Later.
“I’ll find the man who hurt you, Nonna” Rafe said firmly. “I need to talk to someone who knows a lot of people in Bella Valley, and for that, Brooke will help me. Won’t you, Brooke?” For the first time, he turned his head and looked at her.
Of course. The man was in the security business. He cased a room as soon as he walked in.
He had always known she was there. He had known she was observing him.
She knew men like him, men who stayed at Bella Terra resort, who carried with them a chill that froze the marrow in her bones. It was her policy to never, ever let them know how much they scared her. And Rafe scared her more than any of them.
Because no matter how much she hated it, he still made her want him.
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