Castelli's Virgin WidowBy: Caitlin Crews
“PLEASE TELL ME this is a bad attempt at levity, Rafael. A practical joke from the least likely clown in Italy.”
Luca Castelli made no attempt to temper his harsh tone or the scowl he could feel on his face as he glared across the private library at his older brother. Rafael was also his boss and the head of the family company, a state of affairs that usually did not trouble Luca at all.
But there was nothing usual about today.
“I wish that it was,” Rafael said from where he sat in an armchair in front of a bright and cheerful fire that did nothing at all to dispel Luca’s sense of gloom and fury. “Alas. When it comes to Kathryn, we have no choice.”
His brother looked like a monk carved from stone today, his features hewn from granite, which only added to Luca’s sense of betrayal and sheer wrongness. That was the old Rafael, that heavy, joyless creature made entirely of bitterness and regret. Not the Rafael of the past few years, the one Luca greatly preferred, who had married the love of his life he’d once thought dead and was even now expecting his third child with her.
Luca hated that grief had thrown them all so far back into unpleasant history. Luca hated grief, come to that. No matter its form.
Their father, the infamous Gianni Castelli, who had built an empire of wine and wealth and brusque personality that spanned at least two continents, but was better known around the world for his colorful marital life, was dead.
Outside, January rain lashed the windows of the old Castelli manor house that sprawled with such insouciance at the top of an alpine lake in Northern Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, as it had done for generations. The heavy clouds were low over the water, concealing the rest of the world from view, as if to pay tribute to the old man as he’d been interred in the Castelli mausoleum earlier this morning.
Ashes rendered ashes and dust forever dust.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Rafael, who had been acting CEO of the family business for years now despite Gianni’s blustery refusal to formally step aside, was now indisputably in charge. That meant Luca was the newly minted chief operating officer, a title that did not come close to describing his pantheon of responsibilities as co-owner but was useful all the same. Luca had initially thought these finicky bits of official business were a good thing for the Castelli brothers as well as the company, not to mention long overdue, given they’d both been acting in those roles ever since the start of their father’s decline in health some years back.
“I fail to understand why we cannot simply pay the damned woman off like all the rest of the horde of ex-wives,” Luca said, aware that his tone was clipped and bordering on unduly aggressive. He felt restless and edgy in his position on the low couch opposite Rafael, but he knew if he moved, it would end badly. A fist through a wall. An upended bookshelf. A broken pane of glass. All highly charged reactions he did not care to explore, much less explain to his brother—given they smacked of a loss of control, which Luca did not allow. Ever. “Settle some of Father’s fortune on her, send her on her way and be done with it.”
“Father’s will is very clear in regard to Kathryn,” Rafael replied, and he sounded no happier about it than Luca felt. Luca told himself that was something anyway. “And she is his widow, Luca. Not his ex-wife. A crucial distinction.”
Luca nearly growled but checked it at the last moment. “That’s nothing but semantics.”
“Sadly not.” Rafael shook his head, but his gaze never left Luca’s. “The choice is hers. She can either accept a lump settlement now, or a position in the company. She chose the latter.”
“This is ridiculous.”
It was something far worse than merely ridiculous, but Luca didn’t have a word to describe that gnawing, hollow thing inside him that always yawned open at any mention of his father’s sixth and final wife. Kathryn.
The one who was even now in the larger, more formal library downstairs, crying what appeared to be real tears over the death of a husband three times her age she could only have married for the most cynical of reasons. Luca had seen them trickle silently down her cheeks, one after the next, as they’d all stood about in the frigid air earlier, giving the impression she could not manage to contain her grief.
He didn’t believe it. Not for a second.
If Luca knew anything, it was this: the kind of love that might lead to such grieving was rare, exceedingly unlikely and had never made a great many appearances in the Castelli family. He thought Rafael’s current happiness was perhaps the only evidence of it in generations.
“For all we know, Father found her hawking her wares on the streets of London,” he muttered now. Then glared at his brother. “What the hell will I do with her in the office? Do we even know if she can read?”