American-born Italian, Roxanne Serbati, closed the songbook and placed it in the holder on the back of the wooden pew.
The congregation ended the last stanza of "What A Friend We Have In Jesus," an old hymn that had been her favorite since childhood.
Please, dear God, she prayed silently, send me a man capable of helping me bring back my nephew. Send me a strong, powerful guardian angel. And please, please, keep him safe until we can get there.
She hadn't been born yet when her parents had immigrated from Sicily to Tampa, Florida, after the Mafia assassinated the Christian Democratic Sicilian regional president, Piersanti Mattarella, of the Christian Democratic Party. He had been a traditional politician who had decided to lead a campaign against corruption in Sicily in 1980.
When echoes of amen followed Pastor Serbati's petition to the Almighty, Roxanne opened her eyes, picked up her coat and purse and slipped out of the pew. Before she reached the church door, her mother caught her by the arm.
"Where are you going, sweetie?" Short and plump, forty-eight-year-old Isabella Serbati blocked her daughter's exit.
"Your father and I want to talk to you, Roxie."
"Mama, you and papa have already said what needed to be said. There's nothing left to discuss," Roxanne told her mother. "I have to go home. I'm expecting Mr. Fox this evening."
Isabella clung to her daughter's arm while she smiled and nodded to members of the congregation as they passed by on their way out of the church.
"Mr. Fox? Is that the man from Columbia?"
"Isn't there anything your father and I can say to change your mind?" Isabella removed her hand from her daughter's arm.
Bowing her head, Roxanne avoided direct eye contact with her mother. They'd had this conversation before, more than once, and it always ended the same. She understood the fear her mother and father had because of her decision to go to Sicily with a stranger, but she respected their concern for her safety. But she knew what she had to do; what her heart and soul demanded of her.
The man towered over her five-foot-two inch frame by a good twelve inches. He was big. Not only that, he was tall, dark and deadly-looking, with piercing ebony eyes and long, silky black hair secured in a ponytail. Dressed mostly in buckskin; jacket, cotton shirt and pants, he blended into the night like a prince of darkness.
Roxanne shuddered at the thought. Whoever or whatever this man was, he was danger personified. She sensed the aura of unholy power that surrounded him.
"Are you Roxanne Serbati?" he asked, his dark face a somber mask as he gazed directly into her eyes.
"Yes, I am," she replied, transfixed by his mesmerizing stare. "You...you aren't Daniel Fox, are you?"
He smiled, a wickedly charming smile, and Roxanne immediately sensed that this devilishly handsome stranger was dangerous on more than one level, in more than one way. Everything feminine within her responded to all that was masculine in him, and she cursed herself for being so susceptible to pure sexual attraction. He surveyed her from head to toe and chuckled. "You're not my idea of an old maid missionary turned schoolteacher."
She blushed, somehow knowing that his comment was a compliment. Even though she'd often been told; by her parents, her late brother, her friends, that she was beautiful, she was unaccustomed to compliments from strange men.
She was a beautiful, but very voluptuous, full-figured women with perfect facial features and long, raven black hair. In her simple black skirt and white sweater, she looked as neat as her apartment. She was too plump for his taste, but there was something about her; an ultra-femininity, that unwittingly drew him to her. He couldn't help but wonder just how sweet and innocent she really was.
"I'm afraid you don't understand." Roxanne stood and looked down at Fox.
Their gazes met and held.
"I'm going to Sicily. If you don't want to accept the assignment as my guide and bodyguard, then I'll find someone who will."
"Damn it, lady, are you crazy?" He shot up out of the recliner.
"There's no need for you to curse, Mr. Fox. Whether or not I go, isn't your decision. It's mine. And I am going. With you...or with another bodyguard."
No need for him to curse? Was she kidding? If she called saying "Damn it" cursing, then heaven help her if she ever heard him really let loose with the full extent of his vocabulary. If she went with him to Sicily, he would have to put up with her naive, innocent sensibilities.
"Look, lady, nobody tells me how to talk."
"Not even your employer?"
"Then perhaps we've both made a mistake," she said. "I would expect my employee to follow my orders."
She trembled beneath Fox's big hands. He looked into her green eyes and wondered if Roxanne Serbati was frightened or aroused. Or both? As she breathed deeply, in and out, her large, full breasts rose and fell, their voluptuousness were pure temptation. It took all his willpower not to grab those lovely mounds, take them out of their confinement, and caress them, licking and sucking at the nipples he knew would be dark brown, erect, and small.
Roxie stared him directly in the eye, calling on every ounce of her willpower not to show him any weakness. His nearness both aroused and frightened her. He was big, dark, and dangerous. He was gloriously, intriguingly male. And suddenly she knew that he was the one man on earth capable of helping her rescue her nephew from his Mafia grandfather. Daniel Fox was the powerful guardian angel whom she'd prayed to God for. She just hadn't expected her bodyguard to be a fallen angel; a dark and deadly man whom neither she nor anyone else could control.
"Will you take the assignment, Mr. Fox?" she asked.
"You're damn stubborn and determined to go, aren't you?" He felt a twinge of satisfaction when she winced at his use of the word damn.
"Yes. And I want you to take me."
The air sizzled between them. He ran his hands up and down her arms, then released her. A closed-mouth smile spread across Daniel's face. "All right, lady. I'll take you. On three conditions."
"What three conditions," she asked warily.
"One is that you follow my orders, without question. After all, you're paying me for my expertise."
Roxie bit down on her bottom lip. "All right. I agree to follow your orders, but only if I can go with you."
"Yes," she said reluctantly. "Without question."
"And the second condition is that you allow me to put you through two months of physical training, to get you in shape for our mission."
"Lady, you're not trained for this kind of endeavor. Besides being totally inexperienced, you're soft and plump. In the shape you're in, you couldn't hold out for very long. You'd wind up putting both our lives in danger."
She glared at him, wanting to believe that he'd just insulted her. He had all but called her fat! "I may not be skinny, or even slim with a lot of toned muscles, but I'm hardly out of shape just because I'm plump."
"I wasn't trying to be insulting," he said. "I'm just being honest. You're in no condition for the rigorous mission we'll be undertaking. Either you agree to a two months of training or we don't have a deal."
"Oh, all right. I'll do it."
"And thirdly, you'll have to pose...as my wife."
He was a devil. She'd known it the minute she saw him. He thought she would back down, refuse his three conditions and allow him to go to Sicily alone. Well, he'd better think again.
"I'll agree to six weeks of training."
"You need at least eight weeks."
"We don't have two months to waste." She walked across the room, lifted his animal-skin jacket from the hall tree and held it out to him. "Six weeks of training and then we go to Sicily."
Following Roxie to the front door, he reached out and took his jacket from her. When their fingers brushed in the exchange, she jerked away from him as if his touch had burned her. He knew he was making the biggest mistake of his life, but he couldn't let this woman get herself killed. He owed it to Pierfrancesco Serbati to protect his sister, if at all possible. He blamed himself for her brother's death at the hands of his grandfather. And he owed it to himself to pay penance for his sins. Maybe, in the process, he would find out whether he still had a soul or if he had lost it; more than a year ago, in Palermo, Sicily.
"All right, Ms. Serbati. Six weeks of training and I'll take you with me."
"Call me Roxie." She smiled. "I'll be ready to leave first thing in the morning, right after I say goodbye to my parents."
"I'll pick you up around nine." He opened the door and stepped outside, then paused and turned around to face her. "Pack light. We'll be taking my motorcycle."
When her eyes rounded into big green circles and her mouth parted into a soft, pink oval, Fox reached out and gripped her chin. "Get ready for six weeks of hell."
She glared at him. "What else would I expect since I'll be spending those six weeks with you?"
Roxie decided then and there that she was willing to do anything; absolutely anything, to save Carlo Sebati. Even spend six weeks in hell with a fallen angel, and if necessary, even give her body. She just prayed that it wouldn't come to that.
Daniel stored his motorcycle at a rented storage place in Columbia, South Carolina, and they were taking his boat up the Congaree River to his place, twenty miles southeast of Columbia, in the Congaree Swamp. The swamp was the largest area in virgin Southern bottomland hardwoods remaining in the United States. Flooding occurred about ten times a year but only lasted from several days to a month at a time, and for most of the year the area was dry. There were loblolly pine, sweet gum, water tupelo, bald cypress, hickory, and oak, some of record size. There were also rare and endangered species of both plants and animals, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, deer, opossums, foxes, wild boars, and bobcats.
He told Roxie that was where she was to spend the next six weeks getting in shape. "It's the perfect place for you to train during the next six weeks." He sat beside her in the speedboat, the strong late-summer wind whipping around him, loosening stray tendrils of his long, black hair.
Roxie sighed, a sense of anxiousness spreading through her. She didn't like the idea of being all alone with Daniel Fox in a swamp for one day, never mind six weeks. At least now she knew that if she needed a reprieve from hell, she would have someone other than the devil himself to ask for a pardon.
"I have a gym, with a complete workout room in the house and a scaled-down obstacle course on the back side of the island," Daniel said.
When Roxie eyed him questionably, he grinned; a devilishly seductive grin that had no doubt lured many a woman to sin. I like to keep in shape," he explained. "I also have a pool where you can practice your swimming before we try the river."
"You've already figured out all the details of my torture, haven't you?"
"Ms. Serbati, you have no idea what torture is. Not yet."
"Since we're going to be living together as master and slave for the next month and a half, why don't you call me Roxie?"
"Roxie, huh?" He chuckled. "Not Roxanne?"
"Pierfrancesco had a difficult time pronouncing my name when he was little. He shortened Roxanne to Roxa, and somehow it wound up Roxie."
"Cute little story," Daniel said cynically. "Sounds like you had an idyllic childhood with Mommy and Daddy and little brother."
He hadn't meant to sound so sarcastic. But when people reminisced about their families, he had a tendency to close down and stop listening.
"Sorry if my cute little story bored you."
"Let's just say that childhood memories aren't high on my list of favorite topics."
This was the man with whom she was going to willingly spend the next six weeks with. He was disagreeable, unfriendly, and hateful, not to mention cynical.
Roxie had never dreaded anything as much as she dreaded having to take orders from Daniel. It wasn't that she was more willful than the average woman; it was just that she'd always hated taking orders. The only orders she was really willing to follow, were God's. That specific aspect of her personality had been a trial to her parents and occasionally an embarrassment. But despite her dislike to following orders, she was willing to obey his commands. She was willing to do anything in order to rescue Carlo, even allow Daniel to torment her for the next six weeks, and pose as his wife for the duration of the trip to Sicily.
She still couldn't believe that she'd ridden with him on his motorcycle all the way from Tampa to Columbia. Her plump, rounded backside was sore, her face chapped by the wind and her disposition less than agreeable.
They had ridden into Savannah, Georgia, late last night. Before leaving Tampa that afternoon, they'd gotten a late start because he had insisted on her obtaining an okay from her personal physician before he started her on any type of physical-fitness regime. Once in Savannah, Daniel had checked them into separate rooms at a local motel.
Roxie knew that he thought he would break her during the forty-plus days of physical training in the swamp. He was counting on her giving up, returning to Tampa and allowing him to go on to Sicily alone. Well, he didn't know her. Although her idea of rigorous exercise was taking a brisk walk, she was prepared to suffer through whatever torturous exercises he devised.
Daniel watched the woman sitting at his side as they rode out into the waters of the Congaree Swamp, about half hour away from Columbia and toward the small secluded place he called home. Roxie was already showing signs of discomfort at having to follow his instructions. But he had to hand it to her; so far, she hadn't mouthed one complaint or questioned one order he'd given. He knew she'd hated making the long trip from Tampa on his motorcycle. She didn't exactly seem either the athletic or outdoors type to him; not with her round, plump body and her olive, flawless skin.
He could have rented a car for their trip, but he'd made a split-second decision to use his bike. Using the bike as their means of transportation had been the first of many tests he would put Roxie through over the next month or so...or less. He doubted she would last the entire six weeks. He'd gave her a week... ten days at the most, before she called it quits and accepted defeat.
They'd made a bargain, one he knew she would keep. If she couldn't make it through six weeks of training, then she would let him go to Sicily alone. But if she survived his six weeks of "boot camp," he would take her with him.
He didn't doubt for a minute that he would be making the trip alone. She just wasn't tough enough for this dangerous mission into a mountainous country with numerous mafia gangs. Few women would be tough enough. He could think of only one he would even consider taking along; Alexandra Largo, a fellow bodyguard, and occasional lover. But then, Alex was no ordinary woman. She was hard as nails and as tough as any man he knew. She was also a wildcat in bed.
Roxanne was soft, sweet, and completely unprepared for the physical rigors of the mission. And to make matters worse, she was emotionally involved. In his experience, people in general, women in particular, didn't always act rationally when they were personally involved in a dangerous situation.
"Here we are, Roxie," Daniel told her.
He lifted their small canvas bags onto the pier, then helped Roxie out of the boat. The minute they were ashore, they headed to the house.
"After I whip you into better shape, I'll let you try climbing that wall that I put up without using these steps," he told her.
"It'll be good practice, just in case we have to go ashore close to the cliffs in Italy."
Roxie groaned inwardly, but didn't respond to his taunt. They had just arrived at the swamp and already he was trying to scare her away. When she stood there glaring at him, the sunlight turning her long, windblown hair to shiny black, Daniel grinned. "Come on, belladonna, you're safe for today. We won't start training until the morning. Today, you'll accept my hospitality."
Roxie turned abruptly and quickly followed Daniel up the steps. A pink flush spread over her neck and highlighted her cheeks. What had prompted Daniel to call her fair lady, and in Italian? The word was an endearment. He knew that she spoke Italian, didn't he? Of course he knew.
Roxie had known the first moment she saw Daniel Fox that he was a dangerous man, but now she realized that possibly the most lethal thing about him was his deadly sex appeal. Most women probably fell into his arms after one exposure to his wicked smile. She didn't have to look behind her to know that he followed her up the steps. She felt his nearness. When she hesitated at the top of the steps, he came up behind her, so close that she felt the warmth of his breath.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" He gripped her shoulder.
Willing herself not to respond to his touch, Roxie held the shivers inside as she looked out over the expanse of green grass in front of them. Huge live oaks, heavily laden with Spanish moss, mingled with the cypress and hickory.
As a general rule, Roxie was a strong believer in the supernatural, that there was a loving God in heaven with his host of angels. She'd always had an open mind, and as a spiritual person, she did believe in the power of miracles. She also strongly believed that there was a Devil who had rebelled against God, and that a third of the angles fell with him when they'd pitied him.
There's innocent and then there's innocent. Was he thinking Ms. Serbati; who was what, twenty-nine, thirty?...doesn't know anything about the real world? He didn't want to think that the woman was that naive."
"All right," he said aloud. "So maybe she's not totally naive, but she's a damn do-gooder." But she was a missionary. Her brother had been a minister before he and his beautiful wife were killed by the Mafia. Her old man was a minister. "She may not be naive, but she's...Well, she's...innocent?" He didn't want to say the word. "She's sweet. Very sweet. She corrects me every time I use a curse word."
Roxanne Serbati was a spinster, a virgin, and he was going to be stuck alone here with her in this swamp for six weeks and possibly longer, if she went to Sicily with him. He'd never spent that much time with a woman without having sex with her, and he knew that she wasn't going to let him into her bed.
"You're crazy!" he said aloud. "I don't want her. I wouldn't take her virginity if she begged me to take it."
He was protesting a little too vehemently. Hell! The woman wasn't his type. She's too plump, soft, and sweet. And she's too inexperienced. He like them tall, lean, and mean. Whenever he took a woman to bed, he'd expect her to know what the hell she was doing.
Just before supper, Daniel glanced at the petite woman standing across from him. The late-afternoon sun bathed her in a shimmering light, creating a transparent nimbus around her entire body. She looked radiant. Her black hair hung about her shoulders like a raven cloud and her lush, womanly body filled out to perfection the simple, light-blue cotton dress she wore.
Belladonna, he thought for the umpteenth time that day. Roxie was indeed a fair lady. Actually she was a lovely lady. He shook his head to dislodge such ridiculous notions. Thinking that there was something undeniably unique about a woman was what got a man in trouble. She wasn't the kind of woman he could take to his bed and then dismiss.
Clearing his throat loudly, Daniel looked away, out over the swamp. He didn't want to have sex with Roxie! he tried to tell himself. She was not his type. He tried not to notice the way she looked, all soft and feminine in her floor-length blue cotton gown, edged with lace. He tried to ignore the way she smelled, all sweet, fresh, and flowery. And he tried to pretend that he didn't find this plump little Italian a delectable temptation. But his body couldn't ignore the seduction of hers. He damned his own uncontrollable reaction when his sex hardened.