Prologue

FOR hundreds of years, New Issa’s only inhabitants were members of the enigmatic Kane family. A treaty with a rival faction ended with a wedding and the establishment of the Island’s community, founded as a safe haven for the families of powerful men whose professional endeavors were often unsavory. New Issa was a place to live, not a place to conduct business. Unless, of course, you happened to be a Kane.

Gorgeous beaches, fertile land, and an old-world village community dominated the island’s landscape while Tuscan-style houses and Florence Renaissance-inspired architecture abounded. The Atlantic’s salty water offered seclusion while small freshwater lakes provided water for drinking and crops. Charming cobblestone streets encouraged the residents to slow down, walk or ride a bike through town, speak to their neighbors, and enjoy a cappuccino made by the seventy-five-year-old barista who operated the village’s only coffee shop. Small, quaint bookstores, boutiques, and restaurants, all owned by one Kane or another, lined the marketplace proudly, but the island’s real draw was the pacts, truces, and treaties strictly enforced by the Kane clan.

Much like Native American tribal land, New Issa policed its own. Punishment for stepping outside of the lines was swift and brutal. How else could Mafia families, unscrupulous politicians, and the Kanes all live in harmony? Make no mistake; New Issa had never been a democracy or even a republic. Even to this day, she is a monarchy, and Gaius Kane is her king.

Chapter 1

What Was Lost

STROLLING through the vineyards, Gaius observed the new growth brought on by the early spring’s warmth and sunshine. The rows were lush with green and brown vine clusters. Sighing, he reached into his pocket, removing a pack of cigarettes. Perhaps a smoke would cool his head. He tapped the pack, but before he could light up, female voices caught his attention. Who the hell was messing around so close to his property?

Raising an eyebrow, he turned toward the sound. Two young girls, probably looking to enjoy a little decompression time before walking home, had taken refuge at the outskirts of the convent’s grounds where the border met part of the Kane Estate. Those were brave girls.

Gaius spared the youngsters a glance and did a double take. Could it be? The shock nearly stopped his heart and sucked the breath from his lungs. Shit! He bent over at the waist, gripping his stomach. Magda…could one of them be the one? Regulating his breathing, he kneeled to get another look without being seen. They were both lovely young ladies with Magda’s large, wide-set eyes. There was no mistaking the unique clarity and brilliance common to her line, nor the color—rich, deep but vibrant mahogany with shimmering amber undertones. Would those girls be like Magda—able to capture a man with a glance and stare him down until she could see straight into his soul?

A staggering urgency burned in Gaius’s chest. His hands were shaking, and his head was foggy with both nostalgia and longing. The pitiful uncertainty of grasping at something so sought after just as it came within reach made his throat dry and his legs weak. Get ahold of yourself, damn it! You are Gaius Kane. Don’t be a child inching up to a rabbit just to have it bolt out of sight.

Straightening his tie, Gaius slid a hand into his pocket, ceased all of the out-of-character behavior and solidified his resolve. As always, when the time was right, he would get what he wanted, crushing anyone who stood in his way. Quietly, he slipped farther back into the shadows behind the vines. The girls wouldn’t notice him from this distance, but he had to find out who they were.

The elder girl had scrawled Alessandra + Frankie on her hand in purple magic marker, and she called the younger by name, Bianca. Ah, now he remembered…the D’Alisa sisters. He sent gifts to their mother when each of them was born.

Alessandra’s resemblance to Magda stopped right at the eyes, but the younger girl had his old friend’s high forehead and thin-bridged nose as well. Gaius’s heart ached, and he shook his head in disbelief. Those two young girls might be the answer to his most fervent prayer.

Lighting up a YESMOKE 1.0, he closed his eyes, savoring his guilty pleasure while he kept vigil. The hems of the girls’ navy-and-white plaid skirts brushed primly across the tops of their knees just inches above the long white socks they paired with black patent-leather Mary Janes. The long-sleeved stark-white button-down shirts under their vests contrasted brightly against the girls’ dark, bronze-colored skin, and the crests on those navy blue vests left no doubt about their enrollment at St. Angelica’s Academy, a private institute run by nuns, and New Issa’s only school.

Smiling, holding hands, and sharing secrets, those two were the perfect mixture of Catholic schoolgirl innocence and rebellious teenage mischief. As he exhaled a cloud of smoke, his memories flooded back in bits and pieces. The pull of those lost days when his existence had been simple and far removed from this current, everyday strain and pressure were strongest this close to a loss. Yet another one—he couldn’t even remember all of their faces anymore, just another reminder that a long life can sometimes be a painful burden.

Gaius took a deep breath and shifted his weight. He pushed past the scent of cigarette smoke, and his nostrils tingled with the pungent aromas of the grape buds swelling on the vines around him and honeysuckles blooming in the nearby woods.

Sniffing, he covered his nose to stay his reaction to another mild but troubling scent. One of those girls had a small open wound, probably a paper cut. However faint, he would have pinpointed the heady, metallic odor even if he had been standing in a perfume factory. Why is it so strong? Running his tongue along his gums, Gaius tried to alleviate the burning itch.

What madness is this? He pursed his lips, knocked off guard for the first time in many years. Something was off. Keeping company with such delicate creatures for so long had cultivated near perfect control of his urges, but just now he couldn’t shut the odor out. Could it be the pull of compatible blood? Dear God, he hoped so.

To the east in a nest not so far away, baby birds chirped for their mother, and along the vines, butterflies had started to make their springtime debuts. Signs of rebirth were all around him right as he was hit by that delicious scent. Could it be a coincidence? No, it had to be an omen—a sign that he was not so hated and forsaken. Could he hope for as much?

Alessandra stood about half a head above her little sister, and her body had begun to blossom into womanhood. Gaius sighed. Mother Nature was always in such a grand rush. He wanted to scream out to that young girl and warn her to cling to these carefree days as long as she could, but even if he dared, she would never listen. Kids never did. Sooner or later they all stood on tiptoes with both arms stretched up high, reaching for maturity, longing for identity and autonomy but only succeeding in looking like toddlers playing pretend, clumsily clomping along in their mother’s high heel shoes.

In contrast, Bianca was still very much a little girl. She sported short pigtails, and her vest hugged her flat chest. Smiling giddily, she bounced around Alessandra, poking at her ribs teasingly. The elder sister made a face as she scolded the younger for being silly. Gaius bit his lip, restraining a smile.

An empty, stagnant pressure spread across his chest and dropped into his stomach. It was the same contemptible envy that hindered him every time he watched the painful process of a young person coming of age. His own childhood had dissolved into dust and scattered in the wind in the blink of an eye. Slow down, little girl. Enjoy your baby sister’s game. You will never get these years back.

The girls huddled in their special place behind the mostly forgotten and dilapidated garden shed they had likely stumbled across while playing in one of the convent’s many out-of-bounds areas. Alessandra and Bianca clapped their hands together in a rhythmic patter, enthusiastically singing about some damn bird in a rocking chair or something of the like. Gaius tapped his foot to the rhythm. He had heard this tune before, no? Had his daughters played this game? Yes, certainly some of them would have. Didn’t all young girls play these games?

The two girls continued to sing and play until they descended into a bout of giggles. Afterward Bianca picked a fuzzy dandelion with a long steam. Gaius smirked. He remembered this game. Good luck, little girl. When she closed her eyes to make her wish, he took note of her finely detailed bone structure and darling heart-shaped face. She would surely be a beauty one day.

The vile scent of testosterone-laden sweat alerted Gaius to the approach of a pubescent male. Sure enough, he showed himself, tall and lanky with dark hair, puffy lips, and an aura of entitlement. Gaius frowned around the cigarette dangling from his lips. The teenager, wearing the boy’s version of the St. Angelica’s uniform, jumped out from around the side of the shed to scare the girls. Fuck, I hate him already.

Alessandra squealed and jumped, but Bianca rolled her eyes. Unclenching his hand, Gaius ran it through his hair, pushing it away from his eyes. A begrudging, tight-lipped smile curved his lips as he heard Bianca’s rebuke. “Seriously, Alessandra, he does that every single day.”

As the young man shot Bianca a beguiling smile of his own and reached out to give one of her pigtails a gentle tug, Gaius’s grin melted and his blood pressure rose. Don’t fall for it, girl. Bianca jerked her head away, whipping her hair out of his grasp while stepping back and putting a hand on her hip. Yes, slap him, Bianca!

Gaius waited with bated breath, watching while the theatrical little bastard got down on bended knee, placing a hand over his heart. Ugh! Gaius rolled his eyes, watching while the kid begged the girl not to be so cruel. Gaius’s jaw dropped, his cigarette falling to the ground. No! Did young men these days have no panache, no pride? Gaius put out his cigarette with the sole of his shoe and lit another, dragging deep to get the distaste out of his mouth and hoping the little jackass would split those navy blue pants when he stood back up.

Bianca shook her head right to left. Her two pigtails flopped to and fro as she pursed her lips in an attempt to repress her laughter, but it was no use, the jackass had her. “Okay, Francisco…Okay.”

Damn it. That shit worked? Gaius grimaced. What’s wrong with girls these days? The satisfying taste of another drag wasn’t enough to wipe away his disgust as Alessandra disappeared into a more densely wooded area, walking hand in hand with the boy. The couple’s affectionate display was as embarrassing as it was painful to watch.

Gaius flicked the ash from his cigarette and rubbed his temples with his free hand. Taking another drag, he inhaled deeply until there was nothing left but the filter. Exhaling smoke from both his mouth and nostrils, he flicked the butt down and ground it into the vineyard’s rich soil with the heel of his shoe.

Poor little Bianca had been left alone to play the lookout but seemed unperturbed. She plopped down on the ground, rested her back against the side of the old shed, and dug earbuds for her iPod out of her book bag. Gaius nodded. Time slowed down on New Issa, but technology kept the kids tuned in to the rest of the world. At least Bianca would be spared the sounds of smacking lips and leaves crackling beneath her sister’s back.

Tapping his foot in annoyance, Gaius reached for another cigarette, taking a deep breath before lighting up. He couldn’t watch this shit anymore. That cut-rate, low-budget Romeo needed his ass kicked, but they were not on his property and the girl was not his daughter. Besides, tipping his hand this early in the game would be a mistake. He would just have to wait for a better opportunity to make Francisco piss his pants with fear.

The edges of Gaius’s mouth rolled upward just as he took his cigarette in hand and exhaled a thick cloud of carcinogens. His reputation had always been a source of both pride and amusement for him. Over time gossip coupled with some shadows of the truth had painted him as something of a New Issa legend, though perhaps not a living one. Most of the kids thought of him as the boogeyman, but by the time they reached their teens, they started to have doubts, assuming tales of terrifying encounters with the Kane patriarch were just urban legends. Some people insisted he didn’t really exist at all while others were willing to concede to his status as a real, flesh and blood man, albeit an old, sick, and frail one.

Ask any of the nuns at St. Angelica’s, and nine out of ten of them would cross themselves before painting a vivid picture of him as a filthy specter forged into a corporeal demon in the very fires of hell and dropped off on earth as a scourge. Damned old biddies! Gaius sucked on what he promised himself was his last cigarette for this break. To be fair, he had to admit he liked the characterization those crucifix-toting harpies gave of him best of all, but he despised their hypocrisy. How dare they use me to scare the villagers into church every Sunday!

Gaius’s brow furrowed. Those gossiping old crones…With all the trash they talked, you would think they would reference a little truth, considering what they were sitting on in their library. Maybe the sisters of St. Angelica’s were too lazy to learn to read Latin. Gritting his teeth, he cursed the day he confessed to the then cardinal, a man by the name of Giovanni Battista Cybo, who wrote everything he was told down in detail. Sanctity of confession, my ass!

Gaius learned of Giovanni’s betrayal many years later when the old monsieur who established St. Angelica’s on New Issa presented him with a leather-bound journal written by Pope Innocent VIII and bearing his papal seal. Among other things, the old man’s musings contained the outlandish but true, albeit incomplete, biography of Gaius Agron Kane. Along with a solid chunk of his early history, it detailed his time living at the Vatican. The narrative was used to blackmail Gaius into donating the land for the convent and keeping ties with the church.

He scowled in disgust. There was no need for such tactics. He wouldn’t have minded welcoming the convent to New Issa, but it still chapped him raw that their presence on his island had not been on his terms. Clenching his teeth, he promised himself he would get around to breaking into the church’s library and taking possession of that journal one day.

He littered another cigarette butt at his feet, ignoring a twinge of guilt and rationalizing his entitlement due to the generous salary he paid the groundskeepers. Force of habit had him retrieving another, but he returned it to the pack without lighting it. Casually brushing off his pants and straightening his jacket and tie, Gaius turned to leave but looked back over his shoulder to get one last look at the D’Alisa girls.

Alessandra had not returned from the woods yet, but the intriguing younger sister had fallen asleep at her post. He studied the sleeping child’s features, committing every visible freckle or childhood scar to memory, determined never to forget anything about her. As Bianca fluttered her eyelids and jolted upright, his pulse quickened. He tensed and held his breath, standing absolutely still and silent. Oh, those eyes. Did she see him?

Physically, Bianca was still just a skinny, awkward kid, but through those glistening pools of honey churning with molasses, he could see the fire burning inside her. That one has Magda’s audacity and courage. She wouldn’t hesitate to fight for what she wanted and damn the consequences. With a little mentoring, Bianca could be an exceptional find. Gaius smiled inwardly as he turned to leave without making introductions. The time wasn’t right. That girl would need a decade or so in the wine cellar before she aged to perfection. He could wait. If patience was a virtue, he was a saint.