Unwrapping the Castelli Secret

By: Caitlin Crews


 RAFAEL CASTELLI WAS entirely too familiar with ghosts.

 He’d seen them everywhere in those first dark months following the accident. Every woman with anything resembling strawberry blond hair was his Lily in a certain light. A hint of her scent in a passing crowd, the suggestion of her delicate features across a busy train car, a low, faintly hoarse bit of feminine laughter in a packed restaurant. All Lily for a heart-stopping instant of wild recognition—and hope.

 Always that delirious scrap of hope, as desperate as it was doomed.

 He’d once chased a woman halfway across London before he’d realized that she wasn’t Lily. That she couldn’t have been Lily. His stepsister had died in that terrible crash on the rugged California coast north of San Francisco. And despite the fact that her body had never been recovered from the treacherous waters below that rocky cliff, despite the fact no one had ever found any proof that she’d died in the fire that had burned her car to ash, nothing, not tricks of light or three a.m. conspiracy theories or his own despairing heart playing games with him, could change that.

 It had been five years. Lily was gone.

 He understood, finally, that they weren’t ghosts at all, these flashing glimpses of what might have been. They were his bitter, consuming regret mapped onto a hundred strangers, and none of them the woman he wanted.

 But this ghost was different.

 And the last, Rafael vowed as a deep, black fury surged through him. Five years was long enough to grieve what had never been, thanks to his own selfishness. More than long enough. It was time to move on.

 It was a December late afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, a picturesque American university town nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some three hours by car from Washington, DC, and a world away from his native Italy. Rafael had made the trip from the nation’s capital by helicopter today, the better to tour the region’s vineyards from above with an eye toward expanding the global reach of the Castelli family’s historic wine business. As acting CEO—because his ailing father’s immense pride did not allow for an official transfer of leadership to Rafael or his younger brother, Luca, while the old man still drew breath, which was as unsurprising as it was irritating—Rafael had taken many such trips in the past few years. Portugal. South Africa. Chile.

 This latest trip to the central Virginia wine region was more of the same. The late-afternoon stop in self-consciously charming Charlottesville en route to a later dinner event with one of the local wine associations was the typical excursion to help promote the charm of the area. Rafael had expected it and in truth, the bustle of the holiday season made the entire town feel like an interactive Christmas card.

 It was not unpleasant, he’d thought as they’d walked the outdoor mall, though he had never much cared for the holiday frenzy. Carolers were strewn along the pedestrianized street, their voices mingling and competing in the crisp air. Shoppers milled in and out of the brightly lit shops beneath festive lights and around clusters of street vendors hawking their wares, and Rafael’s small group had ducked inside one of the cafés for strong local coffee to ward off the cold. And to battle any traces of jet lag, no doubt. Rafael had made his order a triple shot of espresso, per piacere.

 And then he’d seen her.

 The woman moved like poetry against the falling dark, the particular rhythm of her stride chiming deep inside him even though he knew better, drowning out the barrage of Christmas carols assaulting him from the café’s overloud sound system.

 It had been five years, but Rafael knew that walk in an instant. He knew the swing of those hips and the stretch of those legs. That irresistible roll as she strode past the window where he stood. He caught the flash of her cheek, nothing more.

 But that walk.

 This must stop, he ordered himself coldly. Lily is dead.

 “Are you all right, Mr. Castelli?” the local wine association host asked worriedly from beside him. His brother, Luca, here in his capacity as global marketing director of Castelli Wine, was too busy on his mobile to do more then frown distractedly in Rafael’s direction.

 “I will be fine,” Rafael gritted out. “Excuse me for a moment.”

 And he stalked out of the café, pushing his way through the milling holiday crowds and into the waning light.

 For a moment, he thought he’d lost her, and he knew that was the best possible outcome of this tired old madness—but then he saw her again, moving on the far side of the mall with that gait that recalled Lily like a shout across the busy street, and that dark current of pure rage sparked in him all over again.

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