Black Widow

by Deirdre

Part 1

February's gray tears rained down in a cold shower of grief, bathing the many mourners. A band led the procession of the sorrowful group. Melodic strains of 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee' echoed through the mansion-lined neighborhood. Heads bowed in respect as they walked past the residence of the deceased. A large black wreath hung on the front door. Black crepe draped in sad folds from the front windows.

New Orleans was a city rich in tradition and bursting with flavor. The funeral of one the Crescent City's most beloved citizens had the Garden District overbrimming with black-garbed keeners. The short journey from the church to the historical cemetery was nearly complete. The family and friends of the world famous author and lifelong resident surrounded the large granite and marble tomb.

A large angel welding a sword loomed overhead, from the peaked roof of the crypt. It was Egyptian in design and very elaborate. For two centuries, every member of the DeMoynette family had found their final resting-place within the cool walls. Those gathered outside remained silent in their respect for the man. But inwardly, they whispered and wondered. They eyed the young widow, her beautiful face obscured by a black veil. The tall, elegant brunette was swathed in black satin. A large black umbrella hid her from the scorning eyes.

The interment ceremony was completed and the mourners followed the silent band out of the cemetery. They processed in respectful quietness for several blocks, until a member of the band sounded the call. Then the solemn cloaks were shed and the joyous celebration began. The band burst into 'When the Saints Come Marchin' In'. The revelers fell in behind them, jousting the elaborately decorated umbrellas, while strutting and bouncing to the upbeat music.

She waited until the door closed and shivered. The weather and the atmosphere within the vault combined to send a chill within her. She took off the large black hat and traced her fingers along the concrete slab. She eyed the lettering on the top.

"Phillipe Antione Baptiste DeMoynette" She stated without feeling. "Au revoir, Darling." Her laughter was still ringing within the tomb, as she slid into the black car.

She entered the opulent mansion alone. Phillipe's sons from his first marriage and their families were staying at Phillipe's material grandmother's house in the French Quarter. There was no love lost between them. They depised their father's young wife while he lived. That distrust and hatred ran deeper with his untimely death. She shed the mourning attire and slid into a cherry red satin robe. Gliding onto the secluded terrace, the satin slid down her skin, giving her a shiver. She eased into the hot tub, welcoming the pulsating jets that shot hot water over her supple frame.

She laid her head back and sighed deeply, feeling the flush from the heat of the water rise within her. A smile started to form in anticipation. The rough hands seized her around the waist and pulled her harshly. She gasped as the well-honed male took her roughly. The scream of pain turned into moans of pleasure, as the fire coursed through her veins.

"God, I've missed you Cara Mia..." He groaned biting her neck without mercy, "You torture me like no other. You've ruined me for other women."

"As do you my love..." She hissed, clawing his back.

"You seem quite the merry widow, Sweet Gia," He murmured, tugging the long black tresses.

"The third time's the charm, Roberto," She pulled his shoulder length black curls and devoured his delicious mouth.

The churning waters hammered against the two lovers, mixing with their cries of ecstasy. The sounds drifted through the empty mansion and past the black crepe, which hung outside. Mrs. Phillipe Antione Baptiste DeMoynette was thirty years old, devastatingly beautiful, filthy rich and already busy spinning her next web.

+ + + + + + +

Denver, Colorado

Grace Parker came through the emergency room doors and studied the pale young man seated nearby. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, with shoulder length brown hair and brilliant blue eyes. His light blue chambray shirt was splattered with blood. It scored his well-fitted jeans also. His hands were trembling and the pen slipped from his grasp. He bent down to pick it up and she saw him wince and swallow hard.

"Sir? Do you need help with that form?" The nurse asked the shaken man as she stood next to him.

"Huh?" He stared at her blankly.

"The form for..." She eyed it upside down, "Larabee?"

" mean yeah his name's Larabee and no I can do this..." He stammered, biting his lip.

"Well, if you'd like, I can help..."

"I SAID I COULD DO IT." He hollered, raking a hand through his hair and glaring at her.

"Yes, you did and I'm sorry," She said, placing a tentative hand on his slumped shoulders.

She returned to the desk and answered the ringing telephone. When she completed the call, she tackled the stack of admission forms. It was such a soft voice, she wasn't sure if it was even real. She happened to look over and noticed the handsome young stranger was even paler. His emotive eyes were trained on her and his lips were moving. She frowned, spotting the clipboard slip from his hands and watched him cover his mouth. She flew around the counter and pulled him upright.

She got him around the corner and pointed down the hall.

"Second door on the right," She commanded, pushing him forward.

She watched him stagger, quickening his pace as he neared the men's room. She picked up the clipboard and placed it on the discarded brown leather jacket. She eyed the clock and made note of the time. The shrill shriek of the telephone took her back to the admission desk.

"There's Vin's Jeep...Hurry, Buck." the youth persisted.

"Take it easy, J.D. Us getting into an accident too ain't gonna help." Buck replied, pulling in next to Vin's Jeep.

They approached the Emergency Room entrance and spotted the familiar faded leather jacket. J.D. slid into the chair next to Vin's and noticed the clipboard. Buck went to the nearest nurse.

"Excuse me, Ma'am? I'm Buck Wilmington and I was..."

"Yes," Grace hung up the phone and smiled at the handsome mustached-man in front of her, "Patient's name?"

"Larabee..." Buck choked, eyes full of fear.

"The doctor is still working on him. We're very hopeful. The young man that came in with him seemed very upset."

"Vin?" Buck sighed, shaking his head, "Where is he?"

"He's in the bathroom." She nodded to the door; "I need one of you to complete the admission forms..."

"J.D..." Buck glanced over at the dark-haired boy.

"Already on it, Buck," He replied, pen in hand.

Despite the scarlet flush the effort left him with, Vin Tanner shivered. The sweat soaked his face, hair and neck. He rested his face on his arms, which were crossed over the porcelain throne. His gasps were uneven and unwelcome. The last painful waves of spasms left him weak and shaken. His right side and hip throbbed and he wondered how he would get back up. The small stall was cramped and any attempt and standing would be difficult.

"You okay, Junior?" a familiar voice beckoned.

Buck grimaced; spotting the bottom of the younger man's boots peeking out of the stall door. One hand gripped the frame. He peeked around the door and saw Vin's head lying on his right arm. The after effects of the stomach-spasms were displayed clearly. Vin's eyes were watering in a flushed face and his breathing was ragged. Buck gently tapped the soft blue-clothed back.

"Need a hand?" He asked, and saw the damp head nod.

He gripped Vin under his left arm and pulled him upright. He didn't miss the sharp hiss and intake of breath. The sharpshooter's fingers dug deep into his arm. Buck narrowed his eyes suspiciously. He winced at the bloodstained clothing and his trained eyes looked for injuries.

Vin recovered and managed to stumble to the sink. He ran the cold water and tossed it liberally onto his face. He cupped his hands and rinsed his mouth, then took several long drinks. He leaned heavily on the sink and saw Buck's concerned face reflected in the mirror. He weighed his options. He couldn't straighten up without Buck noticing. He met the dark blue eyes of his friend and managed a weak smile.

"I'm fine..."

"You sure as hell don't look it. Vin, if you were hurt in that accident, you better..."

"Buck don't..." He pleaded, "Any word?"

"Not yet...the doctor's are still working on him. Why don't we go check?" Buck offered.

"Y'all go ahead. I ain't quite done yet..."

"Oh..." Buck sympathized, knowing how torn up the younger man was, "I'll be back."

Vin nodded and sighed in relief when he was once again alone. He swore softly as he stood up, gripping the sink to quell the pain. He spotted the blood on his shirt in the mirror. He closed his eyes, still hearing the squeal of the brakes and the awful thud. His chest constricted in pain as he remembered cradling the body in his arms.

"Aw, hell..." He swore as his tender stomach rebelled once more.

"Mr. Wilmington, right?" Grace looked up as the tall man approached.

"Yes Ma'am. I was wondering if you could check on..."

"Why don't you come with me?" She offered, pushing the ER door open.

Buck followed her past several examing rooms. Finally, he saw the familiar blond head of his oldest friend. The nurse nodded and left him. He walked forward, pausing until Chris's startled face looked up at him.

"Buck? How'd you get here?"

"Vin called on his way over. You alright?"

"I am now. Sure scared the hell out of me." Chris sighed, eyeing the prone figure.

"How's he doing?" Buck asked, running his hand gently on the dark head of the patient.

"The doctor said he'll be fine. Busted his front leg, cut up his abdomen some and opened a gash on his head. He took a lot of stitches and he'll have to stay over." Chris's hand tenderly stroked the dark back. "But with any luck, Sam will be up and around in no time."

"Hell, that hound's a Larabee. They don't come tougher. Sure is funny to see him so still." Buck's voice wavered, stroking the Black Labrador's head, "How about if Uncle Buck sits with him for awhile and you go check on the other patient?"

That got a severe reaction. Chris's head flew up and his whole body tensed. His green eyes turned to ice. He glared harshly at Buck Wilmington.

"What's wrong with Vin?" He stood hands on his hips.

"Nothing according to him." Buck slid into the seat and shook his head, "But that boy's hiding something, I'd stake a twenty on it. He's down the hall, losing his lunch."

Chris's hand lingered on his handsome dog's head. Nodding to Buck, he made his way to the swinging doors. He was still at the office when he got Vin's call. Vin was filling out the admission form when he arrived. He looked okay. Why didn't I look closer? J.D. jumped up when he exited.

"How is he?" He asked, hazel eyes wide.

"Busted up some, but the doctor says he'll make a full recovery." Chris grunted as he flexed his stiff back, "Vin still in the bathroom?"

"I went in just a minute ago and he was...well, busy. I wanted to help, but he started swearing at me."

"Buck's in the back with Sam, if you want to see him."

Part 2

J.D. set off towards the injured dog and Chris set off to find his best friend. He entered silently, slipping in unnoticed. Vin's legs were sticking out of the stall. Chris heard the string of colorful curses and the pained hissing. Frowning, he stood directly behind his young friend. He spotted Vin's hand clutching his right side. Vin's head rested on his arm and his eyes were closed. Vin's hand moved up to his face and Chris lifted the shirt. An array of blue and scarlet bruises assaulted his eyes.

"Goddammit Vin!" He shouted, causing the body to jump.

"Shit!" Vin hissed, "Ya damn near gave me a heart attack. What the hell ya sneakin' up on me fer?"

"What's the matter with you?" Chris raged, "You told me the car didn't hit you. You could have internal bleeding."

"Ain't got no bleedin' inside..." Vin rasped, returning his head to his arm.

"That's for a doctor to decide, let's go..." Chris charged, the ire evident on his handsome features.

"Ain't goin' to no hospital, no how." Vin stated firmly, "Throwed up twice, no blood. Ain't broke nuthin' Just a couple bruises..."

"I outta stick that sorry head of your in that bowl and drown you." Chris seethed; "Jesus, you're stubborn...” He assessed, hooking his hands under Vin's arms. "Easy now...push off with your left leg."

Despite Chris's strong hands and support, Vin couldn't suppress his cry of pain. The knife-like stabbing sensation sent ripples of hot waves through his hip and side. His knees sagged and Chris pulled the pale man's arm around his neck. His fears grew as Vin's struggling ceased. He didn't fight off the assistance.

"Can you walk?"

"Dunno..." He whispered, tentatively placing weight on his leg, "Aw, hell..." He hissed, sagging.

"I'll get Buck. We'll carry you to..."

"The hell ya will." Vin fought the supporting arms, "Ain't nobody carrying me outta here. Get on the right side and I'll hop."

That worked for a few feet. By the time they got to the hall, Vin was sweating profusely and Chris was bearing all his weight. J.D.'s head popped out of the ER door just in time.

"VIN!" He shouted, bolting to his friend's side. "You look like shit. What happened?"

"Damn fool got hit by the car too." Chris grunted, "Get Buck to bring my truck around. The keys are in the pocket of my jacket. It's on the chair where Buck's sitting. I'll get Vin outside."

Buck's eyes glared at Vin momentarily before his six-foot plus frame disappeared out into the chilly winter evening. J.D. supported Vin on the other side and waited with Chris until Buck pulled up in the black truck.

"My Jeep..." Vin hissed.

"I'll take it back to my apartment," J.D. offered, fishing the keys out of Vin's jacket, "I'll stay with Sam for awhile. I follow Casey over to the Center in the morning. We'll drop it off for you."

"Thanks, Kid..." Vin nodded, trying to avoid the green flare from Chris's eyes, "I'll be okay. Y'all get inside, it's cold out here."

J.D. nodded and patted Vin on the back before returned inside University Animal Hospital. Chris sat Vin down, so his back faced the driver. Buck leaned over from behind the wheel and supported Vin's upper body. Vin pulled his left leg in and braced himself.

"I got the seat back as far as it would go." Buck added, "Hold on Junior..."

"Ahhh..." Vin bit off the rest of his cry, as Chris eased the injured right side into the car.

Buck clipped the safety belt in place and with a final squeeze to the shivering man's shoulder, he turned the keys over.

"I'll see you over there." He nodded, heading for his Bronco.

Vin kept his eyes closed for the duration of the short trip. Partially out of forcing the pain away, but more so to avoid Chris's wrath. The silence was worse that a sound thrashing. He could feel the anger penetrating his skin. Finally, the truck stopped. The slamming of the door caused him to jump. He had the door open and was trying to stand, when Chris appeared with a wheelchair.

"Get in," was the clipped order.

Buck arrived twenty minutes later. He followed the familiar path to the Emergency Room. He got several personal greetings on his way through. He chuckled, thinking on how bad it was when the ER personnel know you on a first name basis.

"He's in five, Buck." A muscular black nurse answered the roaming eyes.

"Thanks Mike," Buck replied.

Chris was slumped in a plastic chair, sipping a soda. He was watching a basketball game on a television, which was suspended from the ceiling in the small cubicle. Buck eyed the neatly folded pile of bloody clothes and Vin's boots on the other chair in the room. He moved them to the floor and sat down.

"He's in X-ray." Chris offered, without looking over.

"That was quick. Must be a slow Friday night."

"Terita's on tonight. She likes Vin. She got the wheels moving."

"Bet that didn't make Vin too happy," Buck grinned, thinking of how the gray-haired, petite Spanish nurse mothered Vin with a stern eye.

"Heard him cussin' all the way to the elevator," Chris grinned, "Nuggets are down by ten..." He noted of the game. "I called the twelfth precinct and got a hold of Dan Rivers."

"Did he have the accident report?"

"One of his units was doing a follow-up on a robbery in the convenience store where it happened. They witnessed the whole thing. A silver Celica ran a light and jumped the curb. Vin twisted himself so Sam wouldn't get the brunt."

"Where was he going anyway?"

"He was taking Sam to that Frisbee thing in the park. Some dog food company was sponsoring a contest. Vin stopped at the store on the way to the park, to get a soda. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Thirty minutes later, they looked up as the squeaky wheel of the gurney announced Vin's arrival. He raised his head long enough to glare at the two faces peering down at him. He sat up and his angry eyes roamed the room.

"Where the hell are m'clothes?" He growled, "I'm leavin'. I told y'all I's fine."

"Damn, that's gotta hurt..." Buck winced, eyeing the colorful skin peeking through Vin's hospital gown.

"Well, if it isn't Mr. Lucky," A sultry voice floated up behind Vin, causing his face to fall.

"Aw, hell...Ain't ya supposed to be on vacation?"

"Not until midnight, Nathan's at home packing. Terita paged're not going to be difficult are you Vin?"

"Damn, ya sound just like yer husband. I'm fine,” He said slapping Rain's hand away, "Leave me be..."

"If you gentlemen will excuse me," Rain opened the cabinet and drew out the largest syringe she cold find.

"Ya ain't stickin' me with that thing." Vin's eyes grew wide and he tried to slide off the gurney. A black muscled wall of resistance blocked him.

Chris and Buck could barely contain themselves. Rain winked at them and held up a normal syringe. Chris and Buck steadied Vin on his side, despite the wiggling protest. Rain swabbed his good hip with alcohol and drew some Demerol into the needle.

"Ya got a lot of nerve callin' yerselves friends. I ain't never gonna ferget this. I..." Vin hissed and ceased struggling as the painkiller entered his system.

"There, now that wasn't so bad." She eased him on his back and gave him a stern warning. "You were very lucky, Vin. No breaks or fractures and your urine is clear. But those bruises are serious and very painful. I want you to take it easy for the next few days. You stay in bed and let yourself heal."

"Thanks Dr. Jackson," Chris goaded, glaring at Vin.

"I'm grateful..." Vin managed, blinking off the drowsiness.

"He should have somebody with him at least through Sunday," She advised, handing Chris a bottle, "He needs two of these every six hours after food, for pain. You won't see those pretty blue eyes of his until morning. He should be limping around nicely by Monday or Tuesday. I want him resting that hip, so no work until Wednesday."

"He'll tow the line, Rain," Chris predicted, pocketing the prescription. "You and Nate have a great week in St. Thomas."

"You can count on it..." She smiled, "See you later, handsome..." She tapped Vin's cheek and departed.

"Let's get him dressed and then I'll pull the truck around." Chris advised, hauling Vin upright. He grinned as the stuperous face that blinked at him.

"...m'clothes...need to" He sounded annoyed, pushing Chris's hand away.

"Here ya go, Pard," Buck soothed, slipping Vin's arms in the shirt. "How ya feelin'?"

"Fine..." Vin slurred, sliding his eyes closed.

Vin slept in the wheelchair all the way to the door. Buck waited with him and saw the black truck pull up. He waited for Chris to pop the lock and opened the door. The two of them eased Vin into the seat and Chris returned to the driver's side. Buck steadied him, while Chris fumbled with the seat belt.

"Buck..." Vin's eyes opened halfway as the cold air hit him.

"Right here, Junior. Go on back to sleep."

The interior lights of the car illuminated the bloody front of his shirt. His hands felt like lead weights as they moved over the stains. "Oh God...Sam..." He rasped, eyes frightful.

"He's gonna be fine, Vin. Busted leg and some cuts." Chris tapped the slack cheek, "Okay?"

He saw the shaggy head nod and clipped the belt in. The blond clenched his jaw when Vin gave a soft cry as the belt was secured. "Why'd you twist yourself up like that? You could have been hurt bad. Your head missed a cement pole by inches. What the hell were you thinking?"

Vin sighed deeply and stared forlornly into Chris's angry eyes. "He's Adam's last gift to y'all..." His heavy eyes slid shut and his head slipped onto the headrest.

Buck saw Chris flinch and slide into the driver's seat. He eyed the younger man's sleeping face and shook his head. Buck grinned and tucked Vin's leather jacket around his shivering body. "That's one heart in a million..." He assessed, closing the door.

"Makes up for his lack of brains." Chris mumbled, turning the engine over, "I'll see you at the ranch."

Part 3

Sunday was a clear, crisp winter day. Although the temperature was in the low forties, the sun was high in a brilliant blue sky. Chris eyed the clock, nearing noon. He glanced at the large pot of chili simmering on the stove. He pulled himself away from the work in front of him, and got Vin's tray ready.

Buck pulled his Bronco under Chris's deck. He glanced at the digital readout of twelve-thirty on the radio dial. Slipping out of the car, his boots crunched on the snow as he made his way around to the passenger side. Chris's head shot up as he heard an engine shut off. He opened the door as the dark head of his oldest friend approached.

"Take it easy, Sam. You bust any of them stitches and your Pa is gonna shoot me." Buck warned to the anxious, whimpering dog, who sensed his beloved master nearby.

"Wouldn't waste the lead," Chris replied opening the door, "Hey, Buddy! How you doing? I missed ya..."

Buck grinned at the uncharacteristic softening of Chris's features and the mellow tones in his voice. He eased himself past the reunion. Chris was kneeling and getting a tongue bath.

"Easy fella...Good to be home, huh?" Chris chuckled, then frowned, "Wait a minute...onions...mustard...BUCK!"

"Ah, hell, lighten' up, would ya?" Buck sassed, "He's been through a trauma, he needed some comfort food."

"He's got twenty pounds of it in my utility room." Chris glared.

"Not that shit...real comfort food." Buck gloated, "Hey, that little gal who works the drive-thru window on weekends knows us. She knew Sam's favorite is the number four, king-sized."

"Not from me she don't..." He sighed, releasing the dog that immediately headed for the stairs. His barks of frustration, at the imposing baby gate, grew angry.

"Cut that out, now. Go lay down!" Chris ordered, "You can see Vin later."

Sam didn't like it one bit, but he complied. He settled himself onto the large blanket in front of the fire.

"How's Vin doing?"

"Six hours of peace and quiet and one hour of him bitchin'" Chris reported, "Not a bad trade-off. I'm dropping him at his place tomorrow on the way to work."

"What's that crap?" Buck nodded to the piles of folders, paperwork, photos, graphs and maps on Chris's kitchen table.

"That's our next assignment." the blond replied, "The Carlino family is making ripples in this region. DEA's got a guy undercover who reported that they're moving into this area. I'm doing the background research. We'll have a briefing in the morning. Ted Dempsey wants us involved" Chris said of the well-respected DEA Agent.

"Alberto Carlino?" Buck whistled, "That sure is big kettle of fish to fry. Why we gettin' the call?"

"Ezra mostly..." Chris yawned, "Ted's no fool. Ezra's built himself quite a reputation."

"You mean he's a damn good liar..." Buck snorted.

"Something like that." Chris nodded, "Anyhow, we're gonna be backup and I want to be prepared. Ted thinks this might be a beaucoup bust."

"Well, it's time for me to make tracks." Buck headed for the door, "Don't want to miss the opening face-off."

"You and J.D. going to the Avalanche game?" Chris asked, pouring himself a large mug of coffee.

"J.D.? Hell no," Buck grinned, "I'm taking Caresse. Got my lucky jacket on. I score more when I wear this than the Av's best line."

"Caresse, huh?" Chris wrinkled his nose, "Sounds like a real student of the game."

"Oh now don't you worry none, Pard," Buck laughed, wiggling his eyebrows, "I aim to teach her a whole lot of illegal moves."

"Have fun..." Chris advised, watching Buck disappear.

"Morning boss," Josiah greeted.

"Josiah," Chris nodded, entering his office, "I have a call to make. Get everyone in the conference room."

"Will do," the gray-haired agent agreed.

"Ah, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra slid into the seat next to Buck, "It would appear once again you've successfully scaled the mountain of amorousity." The gambler noted the rogue's telltale 'cover-up' turtleneck.

"Jealous, Ez?" Buck crowed, pulling down the maroon cotton collar.

"Impressive," Josiah noted.

"Nice battle scars," J.D. agreed, "That Crystal must have some set of teeth."

"Her name's Caresse, J.D.," Buck explained, "Crystal was the exotic dancer."

"Are you girls finished," Chris asked, entering the room and handing each a multipage document.

"How is our illustrious sharpshooter faring this morning?" Ezra asked, stirring his cafe-au-lait.

"The perfect houseguest." the blond leader replied, "Those pills are miracle workers. I dropped him off at his place on my way in. He'll be back in a couple days."

"The vending machine operator will be glad to hear that." Josiah added. "That boy's his best customer."

"The Carlino Family?" Ezra's green eyes widened when he read the cover sheet, "Setting the mark a little high, aren't we?"

"Didn't think Alberto Carlino came to the States," J.D. thought aloud, scanning the pages.

"He doesn't. His home and base of operations are in Italy. But his hands are everywhere. Within the last six months, activity in Mexico has escalated. He's taken over two of the largest drug and gun running enterprises. But DEA is having a hard time pinning down the routes and buyers."

"Where do we fit in?" Buck asked, eyeing the graphs Chris printed out.

"We don't yet." Chris warned, "But I want us prepared, Ezra's more than likely gonna be a key player. I had a meeting with Ted Dempsey on Friday afternoon. One of his top agents has been in deep with the Carlino's for a couple years. He sent those photos of Alberto's sons Vincent and Dominic in Mexico. He thinks they're planning on using this area as a direct corridor into Mexico."

"How are we gonna play this?" Josiah inquired, noting the long, bloody history of the Carlino's in Europe and New York.

"It will be a few weeks yet. Ted's keeping me up to date." Chris responded. "For now, we do our homework. You memorize all that data and keep current. J.D., I want you to get whatever you can on Carlino's New York operation and his three sons’. The youngest one is a real playboy. Roberto is the apple of the old man's eye and a deadly assassin. That's it for now."

+ + + + + + +

A month later, New Orleans.

Gabrielle's was a small, gourmet restaurant and the city's newest, trendiest spot. It was set in an eighteenth century house in the French Quarter. The interior had been painstakingly restored, complete with reproductions of period pieces. It housed only ten tables and had two seatings nightly. It was not unusual to reserve a table several weeks in advance.

The handsome young man drew more than one admiring glance from the females at neighboring tables. The thirty-four year old playboy was tall, well built, and the picture of style and elegance. His light blue eyes presented a stark contrast to his wavy jet-black hair and tanned skin. His features were classic Roman and his mouth housed a set of perfect white teeth.

"Hungry, Roberto?" She purred in his ear, leaning down close to his face as she passed by.

"Insatiable..." He breathed, running a hand up her inner thigh as she turned.

"How is your father?" She asked, eyeing her paramour.

"He is well." Roberto noted of the seventy-five year old patriarch, "He sends his love. We have to move things up. Dom called last night. Business is picking up and we need to establish a new route from the Southwest into Mexico."

"Fine by me," She sipped the imported champagne, "This native is getting restless anyway."

"What about Phillipe's estate?"

"That's why I have an expensive lawyer on retainer. He can handle the estate. I'm bored."

"You mean you miss the hunt..." He teased, spearing a melon ball wrapped in procuitto.

"I'm a predator, darling...what else would you expect?" She nibbled at the endive before her.

"Actually, I was being to worry. Five years is a record for you." He noted the length of her latest marriage.

"I liked Phillipe," She admitted of her late silver-haired handsome husband, "He was exciting, funny, a good lover and spoiled me rotten. It's a shame he found out about Dante." She mused of her second husband, who died during the second year of the marriage; "I enjoyed our life down here."

"He was foolish to confront you." Roberto shook his head, "If he suspected the truth about Dante’s death, then he should have known he was next."

"Poor Dante..." Gia sighed, remembering the young man, the lone heir to his father's diamond mines. "What ever possessed him to blackmail me?"

Roberto smiled at the viperess across from him. He lost his heart and soul to her, the first day he spotted her. A sixteen-year old vision, swimming naked in the lake near his father's summer home in Switzerland. Although he stole her virginity that night, he doubted he stole her innocence. Gianna Angelina Baracini was never innocent. She learned early how much power she held over men. Roberto was her first and only true love. They were soul mates and an intrical part of the other. Roberto sent her to the finest schools, urging her to enhance her God given talent. She studied every aspect of fashion, culture, politics, the arts and the ways of love.

At eighteen, she married a fifty-year old Winery owner. For three years she'd put up with the flabby, robust patron. He couldn't resist her and allowed himself to be easily led. He expanded his holdings and his profits tripled. His untimely death was attributed to a silent heart attack while he slept. His girth and poor eating habits were listed as the contributing cause. Only Gia and Roberto knew better.

She'd already picked out Dante, before she was even widowed. She studied every aspect of the Diamond business and his family for six months. Roberto introduced them and like his predecessor, her overpowering allure drew him into the web. They were wed after a short romance.

Dante's father died in a plane crash, leaving everything to his only child. Dante happened to meet her former sister-in-law while on a business trip to Rome. Her first husband had left everything to her in his will. His family suspected foul play and hired a private investigator. Dante confronted her, with suspicions of his own. He guessed correctly about the 'enhanced' heart attack. Six days later, he was found dead. His suicide note claimed despondency over his father's death and the inability to overcome his deep depression.

Roberto urged her to change her name, alter her appearance and move to America. She died her blond hair black, got colored contact lenses and moved to New Orleans. She'd spent several months studying Jazz, Creole Cooking and other bait to lure Phillipe. He was the only one she'd truly cared for. For five years they were happy, until he got an anonymous package in the mail. It contained proof of her hand in Dante's death and of her previous identity. To Phillipe and the rest of her American acquaintances, she was Angelique Desmond.

"Darling, I have an idea that might solve both our problems." She smiled, running the tip of her pink tongue across her teeth.

"What is running through that devious mind on yours?" He sought, studying her dark eyes.

"Do you remember Toni Young?"

"No...should I?" He frowned, "Who is he?"

"Not a he, darling, a she. I met her at a charity ball a few years ago. She's runs one of the top modeling agencies in the West. She has a great eye. Hmm...."

"Aren't those girls usually retired by the time they hit twenty-one?"

"Usually, yes, but Toni has a stable of successful modeling contracts for all ages. Her headquarters are in Denver. She uses several locales from Colorado south into Mexico. She's well known to all the authorities, and on the level. I'm fairly sure she travels to Mexico at least once a month."

Roberto brooded silently for a minute, finishing up his Lobster and Filet Minon. As he drained his champagne, he began to nod. Smiling, he took her hand across the table and caressed the palm.

"You're a just might work." His smile faded, "But won't she recognize you?"

"She'd recognize Angelique Desmond...but not a spicy, spike-haired red-head with jade eyes."

"You sly chameleon...” He murmured, as they clinked glasses.


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