16

Early Monday morning Francesca walked out of her apartment only to find Brenna leaning against her truck. She slowed her step as she studied her twin. For once Brenna actually had a dress on, and makeup.

“This is a surprise,” Francesca said when she reached her twin.

Brenna shrugged. “I thought you might want company.”

Considering how quickly news traveled through the family, Francesca found it amazing that no one had said a word about a long-lost brother for nearly thirty years.

“Mom and Dad called last night,” Francesca said. “When did you find out they’d asked me to get in touch with Joe?”

“About fifteen minutes after they hung up. I didn’t think you’d want to go on your own.”

Francesca hadn’t, but after the fight they’d had in the vineyard, she’d been uncomfortable calling Brenna.

“You might have been right,” she said by way of apology.

Brenna raised her eyebrows. “About what specifically?”

Francesca pushed her toward the front of the truck. “Get in and I’ll grovel all the way to San Diego.”

Fifteen minutes later they were on the freeway, heading south.

“Didn’t you have Kelly this week?” Brenna asked.

Francesca nodded. “I had to call Sam last night and explain I couldn’t pick her up from ballet today. He’s taking her to work with him when she’s finished with class, which is a good thing. They can hang out together and bond. I’ll have her the rest of the week.”

Brenna glanced at her. “I’m guessing you haven’t spilled the beans about the little one yet.”

“Friday. I wanted to get through this week first.”

“Scared?”

“Terrified.” She smiled. “Because you were right. I do care about him. And don’t ask me to define what care means. He matters. That’s all I know.”

“The details aren’t important.” Brenna leaned back in her seat and sighed. “I love being right. It’s a good way to start the day.”

Francesca laughed. “Fine. If you’re so smart, have you figured out what we’re going to say to our big brother?”

“I haven’t a clue. Although I’ve considered the fact that we don’t want to piss him off. Joe Larson is a Navy Seal. Doesn’t the military train those guys to be killing machines? He can probably take us out with a cocktail napkin.”

“Tell me about it.”

Two and a half hours later they entered San Diego County. Brenna shifted uneasily in her seat. “Maybe this was a bad idea. Me coming along, I mean. I don’t know if I want to meet this guy, although I’m sure he’s going to be thrilled at the possibility of inheriting millions.”

“You really think Grandpa Lorenzo will offer Joe the winery and he’ll say yes?”

“Wouldn’t you? Even if he’s not interested in it, he can sell it and pocket the cash.”

“Grandpa Lorenzo wouldn’t let that happen.”

“I’m not so sure. I think he’ll be blinded by the thrill of finally having a male heir. It’s been his dream since we were kids. Regardless of how or where he was raised, Joe is family. You know what that means in our house.”

Francesca couldn’t argue. Family was everything. She still wasn’t used to the idea of having a brother. What would he be like? Would he be angry about being given up for adoption?

They entered the city. Thirty minutes later they pulled up into the hotel parking lot. Her parents had used a lawyer to arrange the meeting in the lobby-level coffee shop.

“Here goes nothing,” Brenna said as they climbed out of the car. “If I start to go for his throat, hold me back.”

“If he has all the training you claim and you go for his throat, he’ll be able to take care of himself.”

“Good point.”

They walked into the open hotel lobby. A small sign pointed the way to the caf?. The lush plant life and sound of a nearby fountain should have been soothing, but Francesca found herself fighting nerves. She placed a hand against her stomach.

Brenna squeezed her arm. “Me, too,” she admitted. “I’ve been trying to think of a funny opening line, but I can’t seem to get beyond ‘Hi.’ ”

“How about ‘Hi, I’m your sister.’ ”

Brenna rolled her eyes. “You’re the professional psychologist here. Wouldn’t you want me to be more subtle?”

“Maybe. But sometimes getting everything on the table is a better idea.”

They approached the caf?. The waiting area was empty. Brenna glanced at the chairs. “Want to sit down?”

“I can’t.”

“Me, either.”

They tried to make small talk. Francesca scanned the people in the lobby, looking for a dark-haired man with Marcelli features.

“Do you think we’ll recognize him from the picture? After all he could-”

Just then a man turned onto the path and approached the caf?. He was tall, dark-haired, and nearly the spitting image of their father. Francesca’s mouth went dry. Beside her Brenna sucked in a breath.

“I’d been hoping there was a mistake, but obviously there isn’t,” she murmured.

The man, well-built and handsome, wore jeans and a T-shirt. When he caught sight of them, he raised one eyebrow. His mouth curved up in a grin.

“Very nice,” he said when he was within earshot. “When that lawyer guy called and asked me to meet you here, I nearly blew him off. Glad I didn’t. Looks like my lucky day.”

Francesca blinked. She couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

“You’re kidding, right?” Brenna told the man.

He grinned. “I’ve never done a threesome. But hey, I’m open to it.”

Francesca blanched.

Brenna simply smiled. “Joe Larson, in about two minutes you’re going to think that’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever said.”

He didn’t look the least bit worried. “You two vice cops?”

“Worse. We’re your sisters.”

“But this is just an office,” Kelly said as she looked around the large open space of her father’s business. “I thought it would be…” She shrugged. “Different.”

Sam grinned. “Like the workshop in the James Bond movies?”

Kelly considered the question, then nodded. “Yeah. What about really cool machines and stuff? Things to help you take down the bad guys?”

“Sorry. These are just offices.”

“But you have to have, you know, like weapons and ray guns.”

His eyebrows rose. “Ray guns?”

“Didn’t you ever watch TV? There are a lot of secret weapons on the black market.”

“We try to keep our operations mostly legal.”

“Mostly, huh?” She smiled. “Want to tell me about the other parts?”

He pulled one of her curls. “Not even on a bet.”

At first Kelly had been kind of upset when Francesca had called to say she was going to San Diego to meet her brother. Sam had already let Doreen go and the new nanny wasn’t starting until next week. She’d been surprised when he’d told her he would bring her to work with him after her ballet lessons. Although she would never admit it, not even if she was tortured or threatened with a ray gun, she sort of liked hanging out with her dad. When he wasn’t being too domineering or stubborn. He could be nice.

But she wasn’t going to like it too much, she told herself. Because Sam could still get tired of her and send her away.

They rounded a corner just as a huge man stepped out of his office. He was tall, with massive shoulders and dark skin. His head was shaved. He was like old and everything, maybe even over thirty, but he was gorgeous.

“Hey, boss.”

“Jason.” Sam put his hand on Kelly’s shoulder. “This is my daughter. Kelly, Jason Carlton. He runs several special security operations for our most demanding clients.”

Jason grimaced. “What your dad means is he puts me in charge of the crabby rich people.”

Kelly giggled.

Jason winked. “So you’re giving her the grand tour, Sam? You show her the gadgets?”

Sam shook his head. “Kelly is already dangerous enough without her learning how to use a gun.”

Kelly was about to say she wasn’t sure she wanted to learn how to use a gun when Jason sighed.

“Not that kind of stuff. The other things. Infrared, night-vision goggles.”

Sam glanced at her. “Would you like to see that?”

Kelly wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it sounded fun. She nodded eagerly.

Sam glanced at his watch. “I have a call coming in from Germany in a few minutes, but maybe after that-”

“Don’t sweat it, boss,” Jason said cheerfully. “I’ve got the Johnsons’ African safari all planned. I’ll take Kelly through the playground.”

Sam hesitated. “All right, but keep her away from anything dangerous. I don’t want her taking me out in my sleep.”

Kelly watched him walk away. She was pretty sure her dad had been kidding, but not a hundred percent. Didn’t Sam trust her? She sighed. Tanya never had.

Before she could think about that too much or get sad, Jason lead the way to the rear of the office. They stepped through a set of double doors and into a mock street with buildings on both sides. There was a huge locked cabinet against the wall by the door. Jason pressed his thumb against a small glass square, and the doors swung open. He dug around and came up with an assortment of goggles, head gear, weapon-looking devices, and small discs he tucked into his pocket.

“Just so you don’t get any ideas about breaking in on your own, kid,” he said as he closed the doors and motioned her forward. “Give it a try.”

She glanced at him, then at the small glass square. “Will it hurt?” she asked.

He grinned. “Not even a little. Suck it up, little girl.”

Hesitantly she pressed her thumb to the glass. A female computer voice announced, “You are not authorized to open this unit. If you attempt to gain access, an alarm will sound. Please return to the front office immediately for processing.”

“Cool,” Kelly breathed.

“Isn’t it? So don’t be thinking you can bring your friends over and impress them.”

“I won’t.”

“Good.” He set a pair of goggles on her head. “We’re going to night vision first, then we’ll do infrared.”

He handed her a long rifle-looking gun thing. It was big and really lightweight.

“These only work on targets,” he told her as he pulled on his own goggles. “We program them, depending on the training session.” He showed her a small pad in the butt of the weapon. “They fire a burst of light that’s picked up by the sensors on the target.” He grinned. “Ever play paint ball?”

She shook her head.

“After this game, you’ll be an expert.”

Francesca, Brenna, and their brother sat at a table, ignoring the food they’d ordered. Joe pushed around the French fries on his plate.

“My adopted parents died when I was twelve,” he said. “It was a car accident. I’d been spending the night with a friend, or I would have been with them. They didn’t have any relatives, so I got shoved into the foster-care system.”

His dark eyes no longer sparkled with humor. Francesca leaned toward him. “But if you knew you were adopted, why didn’t you tell someone? Wouldn’t they have tried to get in touch with your family?”

“I’d already been given up once. Why would I think anyone had changed their mind?”

“Is that why you didn’t try to find your birth parents?” Brenna asked.

He shrugged. “I’ve been meaning to go to one of those registries. I figured I could leave the information there. If someone was looking, they would find me.”

The simple statements told Francesca a lot. Joe was willing to give them a second chance. He’d listened while they’d told him the circumstances of his birth and how desperately their parents wanted to meet him. That had to count for something.

“We’ve found you,” Brenna said, swiping a French fry from his plate. “Now what?”

“You tell me.”

Brenna shrugged. “You should come get to know your family.”

“The Navy is my family now.”

“Actually there are three generations of Marcellis dying to get to know you,” Brenna told him.

“Uh-huh.”

Joe didn’t look real impressed. Francesca turned her attention to her twin. Brenna had the most to lose if the long-lost Marcelli heir made an appearance, yet she was the one who had clicked with Joe.

“Scared?” Brenna challenged.

Joe didn’t bother answering. He leveled his steady gaze on her and didn’t blink.

Brenna only smiled. “Going to threaten me with a really big knife?”

“I don’t need props.”

“You don’t intimidate me, Joe. But I think we terrify you. I think you’re finally looking at the one thing you’ve wanted all your life. So why would you walk away from it? Your parents, our parents, want to get to know you. Is that so terrible?” Brenna shrugged. “Then there’s the matter of the inheritance.”

Francesca stared at her. “What are you doing?”

“He’s going to find out about it eventually.”

Francesca recognized the pain in her sister’s eyes and suddenly understood Brenna’s plan. Her twin wanted to know if Joe was going to be interested. She would rather know now than wait and wonder. Brenna had always been the gutsiest of the Marcelli sisters.

Joe leaned back in his seat. “What inheritance?”

“Ever hear of Marcelli Wines?” Brenna asked.

“Maybe.” He frowned. “Same Marcellis?”

“You got it. Just pictures acres and acres of vineyards, one traditional grandfather who owns it all, and four sisters. Not a male heir in sight. Until now.”

Joe’s expression didn’t change. “You’re shitting me.”

“Nope. You just won the jackpot.”

His mouth curved into a slow grin. “How much is it all worth?”

Brenna swallowed. Francesca felt her pain and it tore at her.

“About forty million. Think you might make your way north for a visit now?”

“Sure. Hell, I’d visit for two million.”

“As long as we know you can be bought.”

Joe’s grin never faded. “Every man has a price. Every woman, too.”

“Mine’s only a million,” Brenna said.

“What about her?” He pointed at Francesca.

Brenna shook her head. “She has principles.”

Joe’s gaze settled on Francesca’s face. “Money’s a whole lot more dependable. Speaking of which…” He slapped a twenty on the table. “I have to get back to work.”

“Out to kill and maim?” Brenna asked.

He smiled. “Yeah. That’s just how I spend my day.”

They all rose. Francesca scribbled the house number on a piece of paper. “Please call.”

He took the number and stared at it. “Sure.” He studied them both. “Nice meeting you.”

“You, too, Joe,” Francesca said.

He turned and walked away.

Francesca watched him go. “He’s not what I expected.”

“Me, either. The hell of it is, I sort of like him. Except for him wanting the money, which I don’t like but I understand.”

“Me, too. Think he’ll call?”

Brenna picked up her purse. “In a heartbeat. Wouldn’t you?”

Francesca touched her arm. “I know you’re not okay. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Brenna blinked several times. A single tear rolled down her cheek. “I’ll get over it. Just give me a few days. I need to come up with a plan or something.”

Getting over the possibility of losing everything she’d ever wanted? Francesca knew it was going to take a whole lot longer than a few days.

“It was so cool, Gabriel,” Kelly breathed as she sat on her great-grandfather’s desk and clutched a can of soda. “There were these terrorists and they had hostages and we caught them and everything. I had a sixty percent kill rate.”

Gabriel glanced at Jason. “Are you sure Sam is going to approve of this?”

The large man shrugged. “She had fun. She’s good, too. Must be in the genes.” He winked at her. “You’re turning into a Daddy’s girl, huh?”

Kelly had never had a father before, so she wasn’t sure what was involved with being a Daddy’s girl, but she liked the sound of it.

“I’m glad you had a good time,” Gabriel said.

His phone rang. As he picked up the receiver, Kelly slid off the desk. She started to leave the office, but before she could go, he waved her back. When she stepped close, he put his arm around her, pulled her close, and kissed her forehead.

Kelly walked out into the hallway. Wow. Gabriel had just acted like he really liked her. That had to be good, right?

“What do you have planned for the rest of the afternoon?” Jason asked.

“I don’t know. I’m staying here until my dad’s ready to go home.”

“Then why don’t you come with me. I have to run an errand, and I could use some help.”

“Sure.”

She followed him into Sam’s office. Her dad was on the phone, too. She thought security was about being a bodyguard, but a bunch of it was just talking on the phone.

Jason made an unlocking motion. Sam reached into the top of his desk and drew out a key attached to a bright blue key ring. A plastic disk hanging down was printed with the words SECURE FILE.

Jason led the way into the supply room. He unlocked the file cabinet with the key. Inside were various forms along with a small metal box.

Jason motioned to the paperwork. “Top secret,” he said in a low voice, then opened the box. Inside were a stack of bills. He took several twenties and closed the box.

“You keep cash around here?” she asked.

“Sure. There’s always an emergency stash in case someone has to leave the country and the bank’s not open. Plus there’s petty cash for things like birthday parties.”

He paused expectantly.

She stared at him. “Who’s having a birthday?”

Jason locked the cabinet, then put his hand on her shoulder. “Your dad, Kelly. His birthday’s in a week. I’d like you to help me pick out a cake. We have to choose the lunch menu, too. We’re having food brought in. Sam hates the fuss, which is one of the reasons I like to do it.”

Jason was grinning and Kelly tried to smile back at him, but inside she felt kind of weird. It was her dad’s birthday and she hadn’t known. What if she’d missed it? He would get really mad.

She would have to get him a really cool present, she thought as she followed Jason out of the building. But what? And how? He’d canceled her credit card, and she didn’t have any money. She would have to think of something and soon.

Sam turned out of the parking lot. He felt pleased about the afternoon. Kelly had seemed to enjoy herself in the office. Jason had taken care of her for much of the time, and he’d only had good things to say about her behavior. Maybe Teen-zilla was gone for good.

As he waited at a signal, he glanced at Kelly. While he could see Tanya in her, he also saw his grandmother. Yet much of Kelly was uniquely herself.

“How about Italian for dinner?” he asked. “We could go back to that place by the beach.”

Kelly shrugged.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

She faced him. “Nothing. It’s just-you need to give me an allowance, okay? I mean, I’m twelve. I’ve more than proved I know how to handle money. I’ve had my own credit card for years. But you took that away from me. I need to have some cash to buy stuff.”

Her voice was an odd combination of pleading and defiant. He turned his attention back to the road. When the signal turned green, he stepped on the gas.

“What do you need money for?” he asked.

“Does that matter? Do I need to give you a list?”

“Maybe.” An allowance. While he didn’t agree that her having her own credit card meant that she was capable of handling money, he knew she would need to learn. An allowance might accomplish that. But how much? And how often? Should he tie it to chores or just give it to her?

Too many questions, he thought as his head began to pound. “Let me think about it.”

She rounded on him. “You are so mean. How can you not say yes? You don’t give me anything I want. Not ever. How many things have I asked for lately?”

She continued to rant. When they pulled into the driveway, all he could think about was that he’d been too hasty when he’d assumed she’d morphed into a normal child. Apparently raging Teen-zilla still lurked just under the surface.

“Kelly come out of your room right now!” Sam yelled through the closed and locked door.

“No. I’m fine. Go to work and leave me alone.”

Leave her alone? Not likely. He glanced at his watch and groaned. He had a nine o’clock meeting with clients who had flown in from Brazil. Kelly had been in a temper all the previous evening, still upset about the allowance discussion, but he’d expected her to be over it by morning. Obviously, he’d been wrong.

Their relationship could definitely be defined as two steps forward, two and a half steps back. He wished he could find a way to get through to her so they could communicate like rational people. Between her being a teenager and him being a clueless father, that wasn’t likely.

“Kelly, I know you’re angry, but sulking isn’t going to change my mind. If you don’t get out here right now, you’re not going to ballet class for the rest of the week.”

He heard something that sounded like a sob. “F-fine,” she told him, her voice thick with tears. “Just leave me here. Okay? Just go away.”

While her temper got on his nerves, her tears made him nervous. “Kelly, dammit, tell me what’s going on. Are you sick?”

“I don’t-” She sniffed. “No. It’s not like that. I can’t tell you. Just stop asking me, okay?”

It wasn’t okay. He rattled the door handle. He knew with a screwdriver and thirty seconds, he could have the door open, but something inside told him that wasn’t the best way to handle the situation.

“If you won’t talk to me, will you talk to someone else?” he asked. “Gabriel or Francesca?”

He heard Kelly crying. Then there was silence and finally she said, “I’ll talk to Francesca.”

“Okay. I’ll get her on the phone, then you pick up.”

He practically ran to his bedroom, where he dialed the number from memory.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Sam. I’m sorry to bother you so early. I know you wanted to work until you have to pick up Kelly after class.”

“It’s fine. What’s up?”

“Hell if I know. Kelly won’t come out of her room, and she won’t tell me why. But she agreed to talk to you.”

Francesca sighed. “Oh, Sam, I thought things were getting better with you two.”

“So did I. Obviously they’re not. Can you talk to her?”

“Sure.”

He hurried back to Kelly’s room and knocked on the door. “Francesca’s on the line. You can pick up.”

He heard a click, then Kelly’s voice. “Sam, hang up now. I mean it.”

He hesitated, then did as she requested.

As he paced the hall, he heard murmured conversation. Three minutes later the phone rang. He grabbed it.

“What?” he demanded.

Francesca laughed. “Don’t sound frantic. She’s fine. I promised not to tell you what’s wrong. Don’t freak out about that. I’m coming over now and she and I are going to talk, and then I’ll call you at work and tell you all about it.”

“What’s going on?”

“Sam, you’re going to have to trust me on this. Just go to work and I’ll be in touch.”

Trust her. He relaxed. That was one thing he could do. “Please call before noon.”

“I promise.”

“Great.” He smiled. “Thanks, Francesca. I owe you.”

“No, you don’t. Bye.”

He hung up the phone. “I’m going to work,” he called through the door. “Francesca will be here shortly.”

“I know. Everything is fine now, Sam. Don’t worry.”

He heard the relief in Kelly’s voice. The tears seemed to have disappeared. Somehow Francesca had worked a miracle in just a few minutes. Damn, she was good. Better than good.

He’d long ago learned that women lied to get what they wanted, that they couldn’t be trusted under any circumstances. But Francesca wasn’t like that. She was honest, straightforward, and she would never manipulate him. He could trust her. And he did.

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