Storms of Change

Amidst war abroad and upheaval at home, Reese Conlon and Tory King face their gravest challenge to their life together.

In the continuing saga of the Provincetown Tales, Reese Conlon’s obligations to family and country are put to the test as war engulfs the Middle East, while her partner Tory King must come to terms with the true price of love. While friends and family struggle with the fears and uncertainties of a world in strife, the small seaside town becomes home to newly arrived art gallery owner, Ricarda Grechi, a woman whose underworld family connections make danger her constant companion. Life doesn’t get any safer when State Police Detective Carter Wayne takes a sudden interest in Rica, but it does get more complicated. When love, duty, honor, and family are in conflict…four women and those who love them struggle to survive the unforgiving storms of change.

Chapter One

March 2003

Boston, Massachusetts

“I hope you’re not leaving the party yet,” Lorenzo Brassi murmured, his eyes glittering dangerously as he gripped Ricarda Pareto’s arm far harder than necessary. With a thin smile that from a distance might have been mistaken as friendly, he pulled her into one of the hallways leading off the grand central foyer in her father’s Brookline mansion.

“Let me go, Enzo.” Rica kept her voice low and her expression carefully blank, refusing to let him see the pain caused by his fingers digging into the soft flesh above her elbow. She needed to tilt her head only the slightest bit to look into his flat, dark eyes, secretly pleased as she always was to remind him by this gesture that he was only a few inches taller than her own five-eight. Among the many men in her family, her cousin was one of the shortest. The fact that her height bothered him made up for her irritation when people thought them siblings on first meeting because of their similar black hair and eyes and sculpted Sicilian features. “I have an early appointment tomorrow for the closing on the new house.”

“Ah, yes. Your little hideaway.” He leaned close, his breath redolent of whiskey and cigars. “Do you really think you can get away so easily?”

“A twenty-five-minute plane ride is hardly an escape.” Rica knew he meant more than just her early departure from her father’s birthday party, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of explaining why she wanted to move to the small Cape Cod village. She was aware of guests passing through the foyer only yards away and did not want family business, or family tensions, put on display. She tried to step around him but he blocked her with his body. Her arm throbbed beneath his fingers.

“Don Pareto hasn’t opened the last of his gifts,” Enzo said. “It’s fitting that you remain by his side until the celebration is over.”

“My father and I don’t need you to mediate our relationship,” Rica said sharply, wrenching her arm from his grasp, not caring about the bruise that would result. When she heard footsteps in the hallway behind her and realized someone, probably one of the guards, was approaching, she smiled brightly and took advantage of the opportunity to walk quickly away. As she heard Enzo greet the newcomer, she hastened around another corner and slid open the heavy walnut doors to her father’s study. As she closed them behind her, she muttered vehemently, “Bastard.”

The study occupied the entire length of one wing and was furnished with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, heavy masculine leather sofas and chairs, and thick Oriental carpets on the dark wood floors. The only light at the moment came from a single Tiffany lamp that stood on an antique table in front of wide French windows. The view beyond was of the circular drive and fountain in front of the mansion. At just after midnight on Saturday night, with her father’s sixtieth birthday celebration in full swing, the fountain was illuminated with spotlights, with sheets of sparkling water cascading over carved marble statuary, and the drive was filled with Bentleys, Mercedeses, and the occasional Lamborghini. The muted lighting and the smell of rich leather and old books were a soothing respite to the noise of the well-wishers, sycophants, and enemies disguised as friends.

Rica leaned her head back against the door, her arms behind her, both hands still clasping the doorknob, and closed her eyes. How she hated these events, being forced to socialize with her father’s business associates, most of whom looked at her as if she were for sale…just another of her father’s objets d’art on display for their entertainment. Of course, they never allowed him to see their thinly veiled expressions of lust and greed. It was even more trying to behave civilly toward Enzo. She shivered, still feeling the steel of his fingers bite into her skin and the proprietary way his eyes moved over her body as if she were naked.

“Bastard,” Rica repeated.

“Forgive me,” someone said from the shadows at the opposite end of the room. “I apologize, Ms. Pareto, for intruding on your solitude.”

Rica flinched inwardly, but gave no outward sign of alarm. She had been carefully schooled from childhood to keep her emotions under check. She turned her head slowly, unsure whether her unexpected company was male or female. The outline of a slender figure in dark trousers and pale shirt did not immediately answer the question for her. She was certain, however, that she had never heard that voice before. She would have remembered the rich, silky tones that rolled like honey over her skin. “What are you doing in here?”

“One of your father’s…assistants…told me I could make a private call in here,” the woman lied effortlessly. She pocketed the wafer-thin listening device she had been about to attach to the rear surface of Alfonse Pareto’s computer console, where the electronic activity from the other equipment would help conceal it during a cursory sweep of the room for bugs. She stepped forward into the light and extended her hand. “Carter Wayne, Ms. Pareto.”

“I’m afraid you were misinformed,” Rica said coolly as she perfunctorily shook the surprisingly broad, smooth hand. “This is my father’s private study.”

“Then I must apologize again.” Carter cursed inwardly at the rotten timing. She’d been certain that all the partygoers would be in the ballroom while Don Pareto accepted their homage and their gifts.

Rica said nothing, hiding her suspicions as she studied the stranger. A lifetime of growing up in her father’s house had taught her that nothing was ever as it appeared on the surface, and oftentimes those closest to you could do the most harm. Up close it was evident that what she had taken for a slender build was actually a sleekly muscular body, judging by the slight pull of the dark charcoal trousers over taut thighs and the stretch of pale linen over arms and shoulders too prominent to be fashionably feminine. She did not see any evidence of a gun, and she was good at recognizing the telltale bulge of a concealed holster or the uneven weight of a revolver in a five-hundred-dollar purse. Taking in the thick chestnut hair that fell almost haphazardly to her collar and the calm, hazel eyes that gazed back at her, apparently unperturbed by her perusal, Rica was quite certain that she had never seen this woman before. This was not the kind of woman that her father’s friends brought to social events, which meant that she must be a business associate. And that was unfortunate, because she was very attractive. “Did you finish your call?”

“I did,” Carter lied again, indicating the cell phone cradled in the palm of her left hand. Actually she’d been about to call her contact to check the audio relay in the microphone when Rica had surprised her by coming into the room. The last time she’d seen the Pareto heiress, she’d been fending off the advances of yet another guest. It wasn’t hard to understand why, either. Rica elevated the little black dress that every beautiful woman seemed to have in her closet for evening affairs such as this far beyond the realm of haute couture. Thin black straps barely broke the elegant lines of her toned shoulders, the neckline slashed down between small, shapely breasts, and the rest of the black silk sheath clung to lithe curves like rain streaming down a windowpane. Small-boned but not delicate, her body beckoned the sweep of a palm and the brush of lips. Realizing that Rica was waiting for her to elaborate, Carter forced the image from her mind. “I was just on my way out when you came in. I take it you were trying to escape someone’s unwanted company, and now I’ve foisted mine upon you.”

“Hardly escaping,” Rica said, moving a few feet away to put distance between them. There was nothing threatening about the stranger…in fact, just the opposite. Her quiet, intense gaze and unusual directness were unexpectedly appealing. “Just looking for a few minutes of peace and quiet.” She regarded Carter thoughtfully. “What is it that you do for my father?”

Carter laughed. “What makes you think I do anything at all for him? I could be someone’s date.”

“Somehow, I don’t think so.” Rica smiled, although her eyes remained wary. “The men here tend to have women who look a little…softer…than you on their arms. And that was meant as a compliment, by the way.”

“Thank you. I’ll take it as such.” Carter was unable to decide if Alfonse Pareto’s daughter was flirting with her or not. Intelligence indicated she was a lesbian, but now was not the time to overplay her interest, not when she’d been found in slightly suspect circumstances. “You’re right, I’m here by invitation of mutual associates. I’m an attorney, but most of my dealings involve brokering imports for several large companies.”

Drugs, Rica thought, surprised by the quick surge of disappointment. Why should she care what Carter Wayne’s particular illegal activity might be? She was part of the world Rica inhabited by circumstances of birth, not choice, but a world she understood well. Rica walked to the door, pulled it open, and gestured to the hall. “You should return to the party.”