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The Rosso Family Series by Leslie North (1)

1

It was almost too bad Petrakis hadn’t died instead.

Antonio Rosso listened to the man drone on…and on. He knew Petrakis had never approved of him, but the lawyer seemed to be taking pleasure in detailing every bequest in the will—every small donation, every tiny remembrance, every charity that would get part of his father’s vast estate.

Or had this been his father’s idea? Matthias Rosso had been a despot in life—and in death he still wanted everyone to dance to the tune he set. Antonio shifted on his feet, and got a glare from his sister, Alexandra.

Both his sisters had straight, black hair—like his mother had. They also had the same dark eyes. An old familiar pain twisted inside Antonio—regret his mother had not lived, the ache of memory, the wish just to see her once more. But he did see her—he could see her any time he looked at his sisters. He wished that was comfort enough, but he would have to make do with no more arguments with his father.

Alexandra gave him one more glare that told him to behave. Even though Antonio was the eldest, Alexandra had become their mother after Livia Rosso had died. She sat next to Eva now, holding Eva’s hand, while Antonio stood, leaning on a bookcase filled with musty, leather-clad legal volumes. At least Antonio assumed they were legal books. His mouth twitched at the thought of opening one and finding a Playboy centerfold.

Petrakis raised an eyebrow and cleared his throat. Antonio tried to pay more attention. Did Petrakis think he was telling them anything new? Matthias had already told them most of this time and time again, usually with the stipulation that if they did not behave they would get nothing.

Antonio listened to the list of residences scattered around Europe and even in North America—his father’s hobby, he thought, collecting places as well as people, and money that could have been better spent.

Finally Petrakis got to the family.

“To my daughters Alexandra and Eva, I leave each a trust fund of fifty-million US dollars to be administered by their older brother Antonio until each of my daughters reaches the age of twenty-five. If either of my daughters should marry before the age of twenty-five, I leave it up to my son to release the trust or to continue to manage it.” Antonio straightened, anger tightening his jaw and stomach. Petrakis glanced at him. “Your father included that condition because he didn’t want his daughters to be targets for men who would marry for money only. It is your decision as to whether any man is to be entrusted with such a large sum of money.”

Antonio snorted. “As if they aren’t smart enough to know that. My father thought we lived in the eighteen hundreds, when women couldn’t be trusted with anything.” He glanced at his sisters. Alexandra sat still, her dark eyes flat, but color burned in her cheeks. Eva kept her head down. Antonio would have to talk to them later. They could break this trust—or he would simply put them in charge of their own money.

Petrakis shook his head and began to read again. “To my son, Antonio, I leave this world with a heavy heart for the wrongs I have done. There was a time when Antonio found it easy to trust others. But that changed, and I blame myself for that. To make up for this, I leave the rest of my estate to my son, with the exception of the Villa Livia on Kato Antikeri, which goes to Claire Bennett.”

Antonio straightened. His sisters did as well and Eva asked, “Claire who?” She looked at Antonio, but he did not remove his stare from Petrakis. The lawyer put down the will and folded his hands on top of it.

Crossing his arms, Antonio asked, “Tell me what it’s going to take to break this will. I am not allowing my mother’s house—the place where she is buried, the villa named after her, to go to…to an American.”

“You know this Claire?” Alexandra asked.

Antonio ignored her question as well.

Petrakis lifted an eyebrow. “There is one more condition.” He cleared his throat and read, “Everything will be held in trust for my son until he is married. At that time he may do as he pleases, and if he marries by his twenty-fifth birthday, the rest of my inheritance, including the Villa Livia, will go to him.”

Alexandra gave a gasp. “That’s next month! That’s crazy!”

Petrakis put a hand on the document. “Your father was of sound mind. The bequests are all reasonable, if a touch…unusual.”

Antonio gave a snort. “Anything can be broken—overturned. How do we end this farce?”

“If you contest the will, you will forfeit your inheritance—and that of your sisters. Weren’t you listening earlier? That clause is in the first paragraph.”

Jaw clenched tight, Antonio shook his head. But it was Eva who spoke up. “Our mother loved the Villa Livia. How could father leave this to a stranger?”

“Oh, Claire Bennett is not a stranger,” Antonio said. He could still see her face—that perfect face framed by honey-blonde hair, and the sparkling, wicked green eyes. He remembered a tall, skinny girl, with long legs and a too-American pushy attitude. He’d almost fallen for her—but he’d been smart enough to know that a penniless American girl on a scholarship to study art was the type to flirt with, but never to marry. His father was right about one thing—the old man had taught him to be wary.

But it was also just like his father to try and manipulate him this way. His father had always been one to play games with the lives of others. But this was too much, even for the mighty Matthias Rosso.

He knew what his father wanted—but he wasn’t going to play that game. He would find a way out of this. And he would find a way that kept his sisters’ inheritance intact.

Antonio glanced at his sisters. He owed them something of an explanation, so he said, the words clipped, “Claire Bennett is the one person in the world I had hoped to never meet again. Ever.”

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