A Bella Terra Deception Novel
At nineteen, Noah Di Luca was Bella Terra's golden boy, handsome, confident, and untouched by the shadows that tormented his brothers...or so it seems. Driven by ambition, beautiful teenage Penelope Alonso fought her way out of the ghettos. During one hot summer, they came together in the sweetness of first love...until his past reared its ugly head and Noah walked away.
Nine years later, Penelope returns, never imagining she'd see Noah or that one glance would wake their fiery passion. As peril builds around them, Penelope has one choice: to survive, she must once again trust the man who betrayed her.Even with terror stalking through Bella Terra's streets, love may be the most dangerous choice of all.
For Penelope Alonso Caldwell, the distance between Portland, Oregon, and Bella Terra, California, was five hundred miles and nine years.
She hadn’t expected to remember the way. As she and her mother left Bella Terra, Penelope had been crying so hard. . . . Her eyes had been swollen; every breath had hurt; her eighteen year old self had thought she would die of agony.
But she must have soaked it all in: the scent of pine, the asphalt slashed by sun and shadow, the sudden descent into the valley, where grapevines stretched in unending rows, where boutique wineries nestled in groves of trees, where here and there an old fashioned farmhouse sat sometimes ramshackle and abandoned, and sometimes . . . sometimes it was tended lovingly by the descendants of the very family that had built it.
The highway plunged from the mountains to the flats created by the wanderings of the Bella River and took a turn to the south.
Then she knew she was close to her destination. She knew by the strength of the sunshine against her knuckles on the steering wheel, by the breeze against the arm she rested through the car’s open window, by the intoxicating scents of sunshine on fresh turned earth, of ripening peaches and wine scented
oak barrels. Here in Bella Terra, spring hung on the cusp of summer, and the air smelled like broad green leaves, like freshly mown grass, like breathless first love and young hope dashed.
What a fool she’d been.
So why did this place smell like home?
It did not. Could not. She would not let it.
Penelope had been raised in Los Angeles and Portland, and she’d lived most of her adult life in Cincinnati. Hot pavement defined the smell of home, so she concentrated on the odor of asphalt baking beneath the California sun, and watched for her destination.
She’d been afraid she wouldn’t recognize the Sweet Dreams Hotel, but there it was on the right, twenty five rooms of ramshackle inn glowing with the same violent turquoise paint that had graced it nine years ago.
She turned into the parking lot and noted the changes: The doors had been replaced; a new sign pointed the way to the office; the trim had been changed from vibrant peach to staid white, as if that change made any difference to the overall tackiness of the place.
The Beaver Inn was next door, a rough and tumble bar that used to be the hangout for the farmworkers in the valley, a place where fights were a nightly occurrence and everyone carried knives. Nothing about it said the bar was anything different today: A variety of fluorescent beer signs blinked in the windows, the smudged door had a high, diamond shaped window, and a flatbed truck was pulled into the shade with the hood open and two guys armed with wrenches staring disgustedly into the engine compartment.
Right now, with her finances iffy, she could afford this place.
She parked her mother’s aging yellow Volvo C70 in front of the motel office and walked in.
A large man with massive shoulders and no neck sat reading something on an e reader.
He looked like a football player. He looked like a familiar football player.
She delved into the depths of her memory for his name. Primo Marino.
When she’d lived here, he’d been the town’s pride and joy, a running back for UCLA and one of the NFL’s most dazzling candidates for the draft. Apparently his bright career had ended here, working behind the counter at his family’s dilapidated motor inn.
She wondered what had happened to dash his bright future . . . but mostly she hoped he didn’t remember her.
From the bored way he surveyed her, she would guess he didn’t.
“I’d like a room for a week,” she said.
“A week?” He looked her up and down, then glanced around at the worn office and raised his eyebrows. “Really? A week?”
“Yes. I’ve got business in Bella Terra and I need a room for a week.” He scrutinized her with more interest,
as if she were an anomaly in this place she was wearing flip flops and jeans and a T shirt that said, Lord of the Onion Rings, so she wasn’t overdressed. But maybe she was overclean.
As intently as he viewed her, she feared some of his brain synapses would start to fire. So she handed him her credit card.
Money always claimed people’s attention.
He held the silver plastic between two massive fingers and studied it, his brow wrinkled. “Don’t you want to see the room first?”
“Is this still Arianna Marino’s property?”
“Yeah. Aunt Arianna. You know her?” He handed Penelope a clipboard with a form to fill out.
She took it gratefully and wrote down her name, home address, and her car’s license plate number. “The motel gets good ratings on Yelp, and she’s cited as the reason.” Which was true. It was also true Penelope knew her, and intended to stay out of her way. “As long as the room is clean, I’ll be happy.” And it would be. She’d stayed here with her mother that whole long, lovely summer, and she knew that with Arianna Marino in charge, the place might be shabby, but it would be spotless. And quiet. And there would be no renting of the next room for an hour.
Arianna Marino was a force to be reckoned with.
Not to mention that Penelope found a measure of comfort in the memory of that time with her mother, and these days Penelope took comfort where she could.
“Okay,” Primo said. “I need a photo ID before I run
this credit card.”
She passed her Oregon driver’s license over the counter.
“Penelope Caldwell,” he read aloud, then compared the two and held the license up to compare the photo with her face. “Looks good.”
She sighed in relief. Her last name had changed, but her first name was fairly uncommon. If Primo was going to remember, he would have when he looked at her license. He really wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box.
“No one else in your party?” He looked at her car, searching for another guest.
“I’m alone.” An understatement.
“Okay, I’ll put you in number fourteen. It’s far enough away from the bar to be quiet, but not so far you couldn’t yell for help if you got into trouble.”
She didn’t like that comment. “What kind of trouble would I get into?”
“Sometimes the guys at the bar misunderstand about a single woman at the motel, especially after a hard night of drinking. Don’t worry. You’ll be safe.” Primo shrugged his massive shoulders. “I do security. Aunt Arianna says it keeps me off the streets.”
Penelope relaxed. “I’m sure you do a good job, too.”
She couldn’t imagine any man going up against a behemoth like Primo.
“I’ve had a few guys who thought they could take me,” he said.
He handed her a key card. “The ice machine’s in here. We had to move it inside when the drunks started eeing in it. But you can always get ice we keep the office manned at all times. No cooking in your room.” He spread a map out on the counter, then got an envelope and stuffed a bunch of slips of paper inside. “Present one of these tokens at any of these fine eateries in town” his big finger moved from one mark to another “and they’ll give you breakfast, a value of up to ten dollars.”
Since the room was sixty two fifty a day, she thought that was a pretty good deal. “Thank you.”
“You can always ask us for recommendations wineries, restaurants, activities. The Marinos have lived here for over a hundred years. We know the valley inside and out. We won’t steer you wrong.” He pointed toward his right. “Number fourteen is that way. Park in front. Welcome to Bella Terra.” In a none too subtle invitation to buzz off, he picked up his e reader, flipped it on, and stared at the screen.
He was probably “reading” the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated.
“Thank you,” she said again, and backed out the door, immeasurably cheered to have the first hurdle of her
visit to Bella Terra successfully leaped.
She might just pull this off after all.
Primo waited until Penelope had moved her car into the parking space in front of her room. Putting aside his e reader and the open file of Dante’s Inferno, he picked up the chipped pink princess phone Aunt Arianna didn’t believe in replacing perfectly working equipment, even if it was fifty years out of dateand placed the call.
“Aunt Arianna, you aren’t going to believe who just pulled into the motel and booked a room.”
At the Di Luca family home, the pounding of hammers and the sound of nails being wrenched from old wood echoed through the open front door screen and down the hall to the kitchen. There Sarah Di Luca placed a King Ranch casserole into the three hundred fifty degree oven. The chicken dish was loaded with fat and sodium, cheese, sour cream, and canned cream soups, but the boys her grandsons, Eli, Rafe, and Noah loved it, and working as they were in the heat, they’d burn off the calories.
Her bodyguard, Bao Le, stuck close most of the time, but right now Bao had gone to check on the security guards who patrolled the perimeter of the Di Luca property.
Her granddaughters inlaw, Brooke and Chloë, had left to pick up a flat of strawberries for shortcake.
So Sarah was alone in the kitchen, and these days that was a rare thing.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Sarah listened as, with well controlled violence, the boys she never thought of them as her grandsons tore apart her front steps. But she heard no voices, no banter, and they worked with an unceasing urgency, as if the stairs that had stood with the house for a hundred and twenty years needed to be demolished now.
The boys said the steps were too steep for her. Which wasn’t true. She’d lived sixty years in this house, since she’d come here as Anthony Di Luca’s bride, and she’d never once fallen down those stairs.
But ever since she’d been attacked here in her home, the boys had been anxious, solicitous, and bossy. That didn’t surprise her; in her life she’d learned a lot of things about men, and number one was, when they were scared for someone they loved, they didn’t say they were scared. They didn’t express affection. They didn’t give solicitous cards or boxes of candy.
Instead, they fixed things. Things like the stairs. Her security system. They had even provided her with a nurse and a bodyguard. Putting things to rights made men feel better. Made them feel in control.
Which was great for them, but she could stand only so much of their fixing before she wanted to knock their stubborn heads together. Because they hadn’t solved anything. Instead . . . now they were angry at each other.
She hated that.
It wasn’t as if they had never fought before. They’d grown up together (mostly) in her house (mostly) and had always made Sarah’s life interesting. But when they were boys, their fights had resulted in scrapes and bruises and the occasional black eye. This time . . . this time they nursed a corrosive fury that, if not resolved, could dissolve the sense of family and affection they felt for one another.
Taking three bottles of water from the refrigerator, she walked down the hall, past the second bedroom and the bathroom and the dining room, past her bedroom and the front room. She bumped her hip against the screen door. It swung open, and she walked out onto the high front porch.
The house was old, built at the turn of the twentieth century by Ippolito Di Luca for his bride. At the time, the farmhouse had been the height of style and comfort, with two bedrooms, a spacious kitchen, and even an indoor toilet. By modern standards, it was tiny and worn, but every time Sarah stepped out onto her porch, she knew she had the best view in the world.
Her home sat perched high on the south end of long, narrow Bella Valley, and from here the vista spread out in a glorious, constantly changing array of browns and greens and golds. With a glance, she could see the lush bottomlands and the silver trickle of the Bella River that had, through thousands of years, carved the basin.
Outside of the town of Bella Terra, swaths of orchards rustled with leaves that protected the burgeoning fruit from California’s sun, and long stripes of grapevines rose from the valley and crested the neighboring hills. Beyond that, the mountains cradled the valley in rocky arms, protecting it from the harshest ocean storms and the blustery winds that swept down the Sierras.
Throughout Sarah’s eighty years, she’d watched as Bella Terra grew from a tiny country town to a bustling
urban area; right now, she could almost hear summer’s influx of tourists buzzing like bees as they set out from the hive to tour the vineyards and sip their finest wines.
Much of the land she could see was Di Luca land. The family was a kind of nobility here, first among the Italian families to realize the potential of the soil and take it as their own. Sarah supposed it wasn’t a gracious thing to exult in the Di Luca possessions. But she did. She loved it all: their acres of grapes, their illustrious winery, their luxurious resort. . . . More than all of it put together, though, she loved her grandsons.
She stood staring down at Rafe and Eli, at the tops of their heads, hair matted with sweat and exertion. Rafe attacked her steps with a pry bar. Eli, hampered by one cast on his arm and another on his foot, tossed the splintered wood into a pile.
Noah was nowhere in sight.
She viewed the two oldest sternly. “Where’s Noah?
Did he leave?”
Rafe and Eli scowled, lowered their tools, and reached up to her for their water.
She held the bottles out of their reach. “Well?”
Eli wiped his forehead on the arm of his blue denim shirt. “We buried him under the hydrangea.”
Sarah wouldn’t have minded the sarcasm . . . but beneath his mockery lay that wealth of anger. “Where is
he?” she insisted. Rafe raised his voice and called, “Hey, Noah! Come out; Nonna thinks we’ve killed you.”
Using the tall hole where the stairs used to be, Noah ducked out from beneath the porch. He grinned up at her, a half cocked grin she recognized from his childhood.
Whenever he looked like that, it meant he was in trouble and hoped to charm his way out.
She didn’t think he could charm his way out of this.
“I’m okay. But I need to get you some mouse killer for under the porch. When one ran across my foot, I jumped so hard I about knocked myself out.” He rubbed his head.
His brothers laughed, and Rafe smacked him on the place he rubbed.
Noah socked Rafe in the belly, and for good measure smacked Eli on his fit arm.
For a moment, things were almost normal.
Then the laughter died and Eli and Rafe stepped away from Noah as if he sported a suspicious rash.
“Drink some water,” Sarah said hastily. “I don’t want you boys getting dehydrated.” She handed out the bottles, and though she was upset with her grandsons . . . pride swelled in her.
Even covered with dirt and sweaty with exertion, they were long limbed and healthy, filling out their T shirts and jeans in a way that made young women watch with profound appreciation.
Of course, how could these boys be anything but attractive?
Their father was a movie star, as charismatic as the full moon and with just about as much parenting sense. Gavino, her only son, careless, unfaithful, selfish and her greatest failure. But he’d produced sons, and these boys were everything for which a grandmother could hope.
Eliseo Eli was the oldest, thirty four, with the Di Luca family’s dark hair and his beauty queen mother’s big brown eyes. He was tall and lanky, muscled by long hours working in the vineyards. At the same time, he had the rare and exquisite sensibilities of a man who producedwines that tasted of green grass and spring, of red ripe berries and summer, of warm spice and autumn. He was a genius with the grapes, and for that, he was venerated, adored, and feted.
Luckily for him, he’d recently met the love of his life, and Chloë had cut him down to size and made him human again.
Raffaelo Rafewas thirty one, with dark hair and electric blue eyes. His mother, one of the world’s foremost Italian movie stars, and his father had created a young man so handsome that before the age of ten, he’d been a star himself. But he’d hated the phony emotions that his parents portrayed so convincingly, and as an adult he’d become a real hero. He’d joined the military, then created his own security firm and done everything he could to protect Sarah and everyone he loved from harm. But he had almost lost the woman he loved. He’d almost lost Brooke. That had broken his false pride, given him new perspective, and now he treasured his wife in away that made Sarah proud.
If only . . . if only she understood what madness drove Noah.
Genoah Noahat twenty eight was the youngest of Gavino’s boys. His dark hair was his father’s. His guileless green eyes . . . Sarah didn’t know whom he’d inherited his eyes from. She didn’t know his mother. She’d never met his mother. As far as she knew, no one had ever met Noah’s mother except
Gavino, of course.
Sarah had never doubted Noah was Gavino’s child; he possessed the arrogant Di Luca bone structure as well as the Di Luca allure.
When Gavino brought Noah home and placed the red faced, squalling baby in Sarah’s arms, Gavino had no longer sported his usual bland, uncaring, movie star charm. He had been angry, embarrassed, and defiant, and he had refused to say how he came by the child and that was unlike the Gavino she knew, who enjoyed hugely public marriages and affairs with a parade of gorgeous women.
Yet for all that Sarah wanted to unravel the mystery of Noah’s parentage, to raise the child without interference from his parents was easy. Noah had been the golden child, raised in Nonna’s home, a loving, happy, laughing boy. She and her beloved Anthony had been his parents, and she loved Noah so much, her second chance child, the one she hoped to raise to be a good man.
She had never expressed her hopes to him; looking back, she was sure she had never burdened him with her expectations.
But ten years ago, after Noah graduated from high school, he’d taken a year off to travel the world, and when he came home . . . she no longer recognized him as the boy she had known. Something dreadful had happened, and no matter how carefully she questioned, he refused to talk. He shrugged and smiled and told her he was fine, and went to college, and excelled in his studies.
Of course, Rafe and Eli were oblivious.
They were such guys, Noah’s older siblings. When Sarah mourned the changes in Noah’s behavior, they patted her shoulder and told her their little brother had become a man. They’d believed it was cool that Noah’s personality had changed, that he’d suddenly become reckless, riding his motorcycle up steep mountain slopes in Colorado, breaking bones in international karate tournaments, handling every kind of firearm with ease . . .as if his life depended on it. . . .
Eli and Rafe had been oblivious, as all men were, to emotions and nuances, and the fact that Noah behaved like someone who feared nothing, not even death . . . and he could no longer quite meet anyone’s eyes. For a decade, she had feared for her youngest grandson.
It had taken this crisis to peel back the truth. Not the whole truth, though, merely a single layer of truth. When Sarah’s nurse had been murdered, Noah had said in a burst of ill considered grief and passion, “I’m right in the middle of this. These people . . . they’re ruthless, and they are going to find Massimo’s pink diamonds any way they can.”
Too late, he had reined himself in.
Now Rafe and Eli, Brooke and Chloëand Sarahwanted to know it all. Needed to know it all. They had worked out that there could be priceless stolen diamonds hidden in the family’s oldest, missing bottle of wine, but who were these people he spoke of?
Yet Noah refused to talk. He shook his head and said he’d take care of it, and nothing they had said had
changed his mind. Eli and Rafe were furious that they’d been deceived, that their brother knew something he wouldn’t divulge, while if they’d been willing to simply open their eyes, they would have known, as Sarah did, that something horrific had happened ten years ago, something that changed Noah, hurt him, made him afraid. . . .
Sarah’s unbidden tears splashed on the dusty whitepainted railing.
She hastily wiped them away.
How had everything gone so bad so quickly?
Noah didn’t need the furious glares of his brothers to know the truth. He was the biggest shit in the world.
Nonna was crying. He’d made Nonna cry. And they were going to have to do something about it. Noah vaulted onto the porch first, then Rafe; then they both helped Eli heave himself and his casts up and
over. Nonna watched them, tears welling in her big brown eyes, splashing down her wrinkled, tanned cheeks, painful sobs racking her shoulders. Noah felt sick with guilt.
Maybe the other guys did, too, because without discussion or discord, they put their arms around her, surrounding her with love. Her boys. She called them her boys, and they owed her more than they had given her lately.
Eli was the oldest, so he said, “Nonna, it’s okay. We’ll get this mess figured out somehow.”
That didn’t help at all. Instead, she put her head on his chest and cried harder.
Nonna wasn’t a woman given to outbursts of emotion. She was strong, had been strong all her life. But there had been too much turmoil lately. She’d been attacked by a robber in her own home.
She’d been hospitalized with a concussion and a broken arm. She’d come home with Bao, her bodyguard, and Olivia, her nurse, and the three of them had formed a tight and loving circle . . . or so it had seemed.
She’d been betrayed. His sweet, loving grandmother had been deceived by someone she trusted.
In between her sobs, Nonna said, “Poor, stupid, dishonest
Olivia. It’s . . . my fault . . . she’s dead.”
“What?” Rafe shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe he’d heard her correctly. “How is it your fault?”
“I knew it was either Bao or . . . or Olivia who searched my room. I’m the one who . . . who set the trap. When she fled . . .” Nonna took a long, quivering breath. Her crying calmed. She lifted her tearstained face. “In those last minutes of her life, that poor girl must have been so afraid.
When I think of her, shot in the back of the head, executionstyle.”
Eli, Rafe, and Noah exchanged glances.
They should never have told Nonna how she’d been killed. They should have known that knowledge would
“So much trouble has come to Bella Terra. So much pain. So much suffering. So many victims,” Sarah lamented. “And for what? A bottle of wine. A few diamonds. They’re only things.”
Eli, Rafe, and Noah had come here today to rebuild Sarah’s stairs but actually, they were here so she
wouldn’t be left alone to grieve. She had lost a little of the faith and trust that made her who she was. They could not bear that.
“Nonna, Olivia was in league with thieves and murderers.
She drugged you. You could have died.” Eli hugged her more tightly against him.
“She drugged Bao. You had no protection. My God, you could have been kidnapped. You could have been
killed.” Noah’s hand convulsed on Nonna’s shoulder.
His fault. All of this was his fault.
Since the year he was nineteen, Noah Di Luca had known he towed death along behind him with an unbreakable chain and he had forged that chain himself. His family called him the carefree one, the one who had escaped unscathed from the angst that drove his brothers through hell. That was fine; he took care to maintain that lighthearted facade. Because he wasn’t like his brothers, tortured by an unkind fate. He and he alone had screwed up his life. Once he had faced that fact, he made choices. Some had been easy, some difficult.
He played hard: raced his motorcycle, skied the black slopes, flew a glider.
He worked hard, maintaining tight control over the family owned
Bella Terra resort, constantly improving the service, the setting, the restaurant.
He loved deeply. But only his grandmother, his brothers. . . even his fickle, thoughtless father.
Noah’s crime was old, but like Jacob Marley’s chains, he’d dragged it behind him into the present.
He wanted to say something, do something that would make it all better. But the last time he’d opened his mouth, he’d said too much. For the first time in ten years, a smidgen of the truth had come bursting out of him. If he had told them the entire truth . . . their deaths would be on his hands. It was too dangerous to confide in his family.
Now he remained resolutely silent, totally ineffectual, doing nothing more than standing close, with his hand on Nonna’s shoulder.
She sniffled. “Do any of you boys have a handkerchief?”
“No. Here.” Rafe offered Nonna the hem of his T shirt.
“Olivia got tangled up with the wrong people, and she paid the price.”
“Of her life!” Nonna’s eyes flashed, and she used the hem of her apron to wipe her cheeks.
“A very wise woman once told me that life ain’t fair,” Eli said.
“Once?” Rafe said.
When they were growing up and they complained about getting picked last in baseball or a teacher who didn’t like them, “Life ain’t fair,” had been Nonna’s response.
Noah had come to think that was the truest piece of wisdom she had taught them.
From the open screen door, Bao Le spoke. “Olivia’s death is my fault.” Slowly she opened the door, and with the fluid ease of a martial artist, she moved out to join them. Petite and slender, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, she was one of Rafe’s most trusted employees.
Although Noah would have said it wasn’t possible, with
Olivia’s betrayal Bao’s protection of Nonna had escalated.
Bao had always been intense; now her large brown eyes glowed with fervor. Three times a day and, as far as he knew, five times a night, she left the house and stalked the grounds, checking with the other guards, looking for any sign an intruder had crept through their net of security.
“It’s my fault,” she repeated. “She had a clean background check, but I should have seen the truth.” She offered Nonna a box of tissues.
“No, Bao.” Nonna broke away from her grandsons.
She took a tissue and wiped her nose. “I should have questioned Olivia more. Instead, I thought I should respect her privacy. She never told me about herself.”
The ultimate damnation. Nonna had a way of listening, as if she was really interested, and everyone talked
to her. They confessed everything in their pasts, happiness or sorrow or guilt or self satisfaction.
Sooner or later, Nonna knew all of everyone’s hopes, ambitions . . . and sins.
Nonna hugged Bao.
Bao stood stiff and unresponsive. Finally she gave in, bowed her head, and put it on Nonna’s shoulder. For just a second. Then she sprang back to attention, as if afraid that even a moment’s daydreaming would once more result in disaster. “Someone offered her money,” Bao said, “either before she came to Bella Terra or after she came to work in your house, and she took the bribe. I don’t understand why you cry for her, Mrs. Di Luca. She was the worst kind of person, one who betrays all that is good and honorable in this world.”
“You’re right, dear. And yet I cry.” Sarah smiled at Bao, but that smile wavered.
Bao scowled. “I will check your casserole.” She went in and slammed the door behind her.
“She’s angry that she failed you,” Rafe said.
“I know. Yet I failed, too. I should have seen that
Olivia could betray us.” Nonna dabbed at her red nose.
As much as it pained Noah to see his grandmother cry, he felt an even deeper sorrow. Sooner or later, she would know Noah’s secrets and sins, and when she did, she would ache for him as she ached for Olivia.
For like Olivia, he would be dead.
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