Castelli’s Virgin Widow
A Castelli Brothers Story
“Saint Kate is a myth…”
Reckless magnate Luca Castelli thinks he knows everything about his late father’s widow, Kathryn. He won’t be fooled by the tabloids’ adoration—to his mind, this young, achingly beautiful woman is no saint! So when terms of the will force Luca to become Kathryn’s boss, he resolves to push her to her very limits…
But as Kathryn rises to his challenge, the fire between them that burns with equal parts hatred and lust only grows hotter! Until one night, Luca discovers Kathryn’s innocence runs deeper than he could ever have imagined… She belongs to him, and him alone!
Castelli’s Virgin Widow
Luca Castelli’s trademark growl, his English laced with an undercurrent of both his native Italian and that particular harsh ruthlessness that Kathryn had only ever heard directed at her, jolted through her like an electric shock.
She jerked where she stood near the library window, actually jumping in a way he’d be unlikely to miss, even from all the way on the other side of the long, luxurious, stunningly appointed room.
Well-done, she thought, despairing of herself anew. Now he knows exactly how much he gets to you.
She didn’t expect that anything she did would make this man like her. Luca had made it clear that could never happen. Over and over and over again, these past two years. But she wanted him—needed him—not to actively hate her as she started this new phase of her life.
Kathryn figured that was better than nothing. As good a start as she could hope for, really. And her mother certainly hadn’t raised her to be a coward, despite how disappointing she knew she’d always been. Rose Merchant had never let hardship get between her and what needed to be done, as she reminded Kathryn at every opportunity. Forging ahead into the corporate world the way Rose hadn’t been able to do with a child to raise all on her own was, truly, the least Kathryn could do to honor all of her sacrifices.
And to assuage the guilt she felt about her marriage to Gianni—the one time “honoring her mother’s sacrifices” had allowed her to do something purely for herself, too. But she couldn’t let herself think about that too closely. It made her feel much too ungrateful.
Kathryn straightened from her place at the window, aware that her movements were jerky and awkward, the way she always seemed to be around this man who noticed every last embarrassing detail about her and never hesitated to use each and every one of them against her. She nervously smoothed down the front of her dress. Nervously and also carefully, as if the dress was a talisman.
She’d agonized over what to wear today because she’d wanted to look as unlike the gold-digging whore she knew the family—Luca—thought she was as possible. And still, she was terribly afraid she’d ended up looking rather more like a poor man’s version of an Audrey Hepburn wannabe instead. The papers would trumpet that possibility, call it an homage to Audrey or something equally embarrassing, and Luca would assume it was all part of a deliberate campaign toward some grim end he believed she’d been angling toward since the start, rather than simply riding out the attention as best she could. The cycle of his bitter condemnation would continue, turning and turning without end…
But she was delaying the inevitable. She’d always wanted a chance to prove herself, to work on the creative side of a corporation and try her hand at something fun and interesting like marketing or branding instead of the deadly dull figures at which she was utterly hopeless. She’d spent her whole marriage excited at the prospect of working in the family company with Luca and his creative genius.
Even if, other than that corporate flair of his, he was pretty much just awful. She assured herself powerful men often were. That Luca was run of the mill in that sense.
Kathryn took a deep breath, resolutely squared her shoulders and turned to face her own personal demon at last.
“Hello, Luca,” she said across the acres of space that separated them in this vast room, and she was proud of herself. She sounded so calm, so cool, when she was anything but.
For any number of reasons, but mostly because looking at Luca Castelli was like staring directly into the sun. It had been from the start.
And as usual, she was instantly dizzy.
Luca moved like a terrible shadow across the library floor, and tragically, he was as beautiful as ever. Tall and solid and impressively athletic, his rangy form was sculpted to lean, male perfection and was routinely celebrated in slick, photo-heavy tabloid exultations across at least five continents. His thick black hair always looked messy, as if he lived such a reckless, devil-may-care life that it required he run his hands through it all the time and rake it back from his darkly handsome face as punctuation to every sentence—despite the fact he was now the Chief Operating Officer of the family company.
Even here, on the day of his father’s funeral, where he wore a dark suit that trumpeted his rampant masculinity and excellent taste in equal measure, he gave off that same indolent air. That lazy, playful, perpetually relaxed state that only a man cresting high on the wealth of generations of equally affluent and pedigreed ancestors could achieve. As if no matter what he was actually doing, some part of him was always lounging about on a yacht somewhere with a cold drink in his hand and women presenting themselves for his pleasure. He had the look of a man who lived forever on the verge of laughter, deep and whole-bodied, from his gorgeous mouth to his flashing dark eyes.
Kathryn had seen a hundred pictures of him exactly like that, lighting up the whole of the Amalfi Coast and half of Europe with that irrepressible gleam of his—
Except, of course, when he looked at her.
The scowl he wore now did nothing to make him any less beautiful. Nothing could. But it made Kathryn shake deep, deep inside, as if she’d lost control of her own bones. She wanted to bolt. She might have, if that wouldn’t have made this whole situation that much worse.
Besides, if she’d learned anything these past two years, it was that there was no outrunning Luca Castelli. There was no outmaneuvering him. There was only surviving him.
“Hello, Stepmother,” he said, that awful dark thing in his voice wrapping around her and sinking hot and blackened tendrils of something like shame into every part of her body, so deep it hurt to breathe. He seemed unaffected as ever, sauntering toward her with his usual deceptively lazy deadliness and those dark eyes so burning hot she could feel them punching into her from afar. “Or should we concoct a different title for you? The Widow Castelli has a certain gothic ring to it. I think. I’ll have it engraved on your business cards.”
“You know,” Kathryn said, because she was still entirely too lightheaded and not managing her tongue the way she should, “if you decided not to be horrible to me for five minutes the world wouldn’t actually screech to a halt. We’d all survive. I promise.”
His face was like stone, his full lips thin with displeasure, and he was closing the distance between them much too fast for Kathryn’s peace of mind.
“I have no idea why you feel you need to bring this particular performance of yours into an office setting,” he said as he drew closer. “Much less mine. I’m certain there are any number of hotel bars across Europe that cater to your brand of desperation and craven greed. You should have no trouble finding your next mark within the week.”
That he could still hate her so much should not have surprised her, Kathryn knew, because Luca had been remarkably consistent in that since the day she’d arrived in Italy with Gianni two years ago. And yet, like that cold winter morning when he’d charged at her across this very same floor, dark and furious and terrifying in a way she hadn’t entirely understood, it did.
Though surprise wasn’t really the right word to describe the thing that rolled inside her, flattening everything it touched.
“I suppose the world really would end if you accepted the possibility that I might not be who you think I am,” she said now, straightening her spine against the familiar rush of pointless grief that was her absurd response to the fact this angry, hateful man had never liked her. Kathryn channeled that odd, scraped-raw feeling into temper instead. “You’d have to reexamine your prejudices, and who knows what might happen then? Of course a man like you would find that scary. You have so many of them.”
The truth was that she hardly knew Luca, despite two years of having forced, unpleasant interactions with him. What she did know was that he’d taken an instant and intense and noticeable dislike to her. On sight. Why she’d subsequently spent even three seconds—much less the whole of her marriage to his father—trying to convince him that he was wrong about her was a mystery to her. It no doubt spoke to deep psychological problems on her part, but then again, what about her relationship with this family didn’t?
But she did know that poking at him was unwise.
Kathryn had a moment to regret the fact she’d done it anyway as Luca bore down on her, striding across the expanse of polished old floors and priceless rugs tossed here and there below rows of first editions in more languages than she’d known existed, all as smug and wealthy and resolutely untouchable as he was.
“This is as good a time as any to discuss the expectations I have for all Castelli Wine employees who work in my office in Rome.” Luca’s voice was dark. Cold. And as he moved toward her he regarded her with that sharpness in his eyes that made her feel…fluttery, low in her belly. “First, obedience. I will tell you when I am interested in hearing from you. If you are in doubt, you can assume I prefer you remain silent. You can assume that will always be the case. Second, confidentiality. If you cannot be trusted, if you are forever running off to the tabloids to give whining interviews about the many ways you have been wronged and victimized, Saint Kate—”
Kathryn flinched. “Please don’t call me that. You know that’s something the tabloids have made up.”
Her mum had sniffed at the name and the image more than once, then reminded Kathryn that she had given Kathryn everything and received little in return, yet had never been called a saint by anyone. She’d even suggested that perhaps it had been Kathryn who’d come up with that name and that obnoxious storyline in the first place. It hadn’t been.
That wasn’t to say she hadn’t played to it now and again. She’d always been fascinated with a good brand and widespread, global marketing.
The fact that no one believed she hadn’t made it all up herself, however, she found maddening. “Saint Kate has nothing to do with me.”
“Believe me,” Luca said in that quiet, horrible way of his, “I am under no delusions about you or your purity.”
An actual slap would have hurt less. Kathryn blinked, managed not to otherwise react, and forced herself to stay right where she was instead of reeling at that. Because his opinion of her aside, this was her chance to do something she really, truly believed she’d be good at instead of what other people thought she ought to be good at. She knew he hated her. She might not know why, but it didn’t matter, in the end. Kathryn had never wanted status or jewels or whatever the stepmothers before her had wanted from Gianni. She’d wanted this. A chance to prove herself at a job she knew she could do, in a company that had international reach and a bold, bright future, and to finally show her mother that she, too, could succeed in business. Her way, not Rose’s way. This was what Gianni had promised her when he’d persuaded her to leave her MBA course in London and marry him—the opportunity to work in the family business when the marriage was over.
This was what she wanted. She knew that if she did what every last nerve in her body was shrieking at her to do and broke for the door, she’d never come back and Luca, certainly, would never give her another chance, no matter what it said in Gianni’s will.
Her mother would never, ever forgive her. And the lonely little girl inside Kathryn, who had never wanted anything but Rose’s love no matter how out of reach that had always been, simply couldn’t let that happen.
“Luca,” she said now, “before you really warm up to your insults, which are always so creative and comprehensive, I want to make sure you understand that I have every intention—”
“May the angels save me from the intentions of unscrupulous women.” He was almost upon her, and one of the most unfair parts of this was that she couldn’t seem to keep herself from feeling something like mesmerized by the way he moved. That impossible, offhanded grace of his he didn’t deserve, and she shouldn’t notice the way she did. It made her limbs feel precarious. Uncertain. “Third, my father’s will says only that I must accommodate your desire to play at an office job, not what that job entails. If you complain, about anything at all, it will get worse. Do you understand?”
She felt a dark, hard pulse inside her then. It felt like running. Like fright. It gripped her, hard. In her temples. In the hollows behind her knees. In her throat.
In her sex.
Kathryn didn’t have any idea what was happening to her. She struck out at him instead.
“Oh, what fun.” She stared back at him when his scowl edged over into something purely ferocious, and she made no attempt to rein in her sarcastic tone. Gianni was dead. The gloves were off. “Are you planning to make me scrub the floors? Let me guess, on my hands and knees with a toothbrush? That will teach me…something, I’m sure.”
“I doubt that very much,” he gritted out. He stopped a few feet away from her. Too close. Luca stood there, then, in all his male fury while that dark thing that had always flared between them wound tighter and tighter around them and stole all the air from the graceful room. “But if I ask you to do it, whatever it is, I expect it to be done. No excuses.”
Kathryn forced herself to speak. “And what if it turns out you’re wrong about me and I’m not quite as useless as you imagine? I’m guessing abject apologies aren’t exactly your strong suit.”
His hard mouth—that she shouldn’t find so fascinating, because what was wrong with her? She might as well find a shark cuddly—shifted into a merciless curve that was entirely too harsh to be a smile. “Have I ever told you how much I hate women like you?”
That word. Hate. It was a very strong word, and Kathryn had never understood how everything between them could feel so intense. She wasn’t any clearer about that now. Nor why it scraped at that raw place inside her, as if it mattered deeply to her. As if he did.
When of course, he couldn’t. He didn’t. Luca was a means to an end, nothing more.
“It was rather more implied than stated outright,” she replied, fighting to keep her voice even. “Nonetheless, you can take pride in the fact you managed to make your feelings perfectly clear from the start.”
“My father married ever-younger women the way some men change their shoes,” Luca said darkly, as if this was news to either one of them. “You are nothing but the last in his endless, pointless game of musical beds. You are not the most beautiful. You are not even the youngest. You are merely the one who survived him. You must know you meant nothing to him.”
Kathryn shook her head at him. “I know exactly what I meant to your father.”
“I would not brag, were I you, about your calculating and conniving ways,” he threw back at her. “Especially not in my office, where you will find that the hardworking people who are rewarded on their merits rather than their various seduction techniques are unlikely to celebrate that approach.”
Luca shook his head, judgment written in every line of his body in that elegant suit that a man as horrible as he was shouldn’t have been able to wear so well. Seduction techniques, he’d said, the way someone might say the Ebola virus. It offended her, Kathryn thought.
He offended her.
Maybe that was why she lost her mind a little bit. He’d finally pushed her too far.
“I spent most of my marriage trying to figure out why you hated me so much,” she bit out, heedless of his overwhelming proximity. Not caring the way she should about that glittering thing in his dark eyes. “That a grown man, seemingly of sound mind and obviously capable of performing great corporate feats when it suited him, could loathe another person on sight and for no reason. This made no sense to me.”
She was aware of the grand house arrayed behind him, its ancient Italian splendor pressing in on her from all sides. Of the crystal-clear lake that stretched off into the mist and the mountains that rose sharp and imposing above it. Of Gianni, sweet old Gianni, who she would never make laugh again and would never call her cara again in his gravelly old voice. Even this rarefied, beautiful world felt diminished by the loss of him, and here Luca was, as hateful as ever.
She couldn’t bear it.
“I’m a decent person. I try to do the right thing. More to the point,” and Kathryn raised her voice slightly when Luca made a derisive noise, “I’m not worth all the hatred and brooding you’ve been directing at me for years. I married your father and took care of him, the end. Neither you nor your brother had any interest in doing that. Some men in your position might thank me.”
It was as if Luca expanded to fill the whole of the library then, he was so big, suddenly. Even bigger than he already was. So big she couldn’t breathe, and he hadn’t moved a muscle. He was simply dark and terrible, and that awful light in his eyes burned when he scowled at her.
“You were one more in a long line of—”
“Yes, but that’s the thing, isn’t it?” He looked astonished that she’d interrupted him, but Kathryn ignored that and kept going. “If you’d seen the likes of me before, why hate me at all? I should have been run of the mill.”
“You were. You were sixth.”
“But you didn’t despise the other five,” Kathryn snapped, frustrated. “Lily told me all about them. You liked her mother. The last one tried to crawl into bed with you more than once, and you laughed each time you dumped her out in the hall. You simply told her to stop trying because it would never happen with you—you didn’t even tell your father. You didn’t hate her, and you knew she was every single thing you accuse me of being.”
“Are you truly claiming you are not those things? That you are, in fact, this unrecognizable paragon I’ve read so much about in the papers? Come now, Kathryn. You cannot imagine I am so naive.”
“I never did anything to you, Luca,” she hurled at him, and she couldn’t control her voice then.
There were nearly two years of repressed feelings bottled up inside her. Every slight. Every snide remark. Every cutting word he’d said to her. Every vicious, unfair glare. Every time he’d walked out of a room she entered in obvious disgust. Every time she’d looked up from a conversation to find that stare of his all over her, like a touch.
It was true that on some level, it was refreshing to meet someone who was so shockingly direct. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.
“I have no idea why you hated me the moment you saw me. I have no idea what goes on in that head of yours.” She stepped forward, far too close to him and then, no longer caring what his reaction would be, she went suicidal and poked two fingers into his chest. Hard. “But after today? I no longer care. Treat me the way you treat anyone else who works for you. Stop acting as if I’m a demon sent straight from hell to torture you.”
He’d gone deathly still beneath her fingers. Like marble.
“Remove your hand.” His voice was frozen. Furious. “Now.”
She ignored him.
“I don’t have to prove that I’m a decent person to you. I don’t care if the world knows your father forced you to hire me. I know I’ll do a good job. My work will speak for itself.” She poked him again, just as hard as before, and who cared if it was suicidal? There were worse things. Like suffering through another round of his character assassinations. “But I’m not going to listen to your abuse any longer.”
“I told you to remove your hand.”
Kathryn held his dark gaze. She saw the bright warning in it, and it should have scared her. It should have impressed her on some level, reminded her that whatever else he was, he was a very strong, very well-built man who was as unpredictable as he was dangerous.
And that he hated her.
But instead, she stared right back at him.
“I don’t care what you think of me,” she told him, very distinctly.
And then she poked him a third time. Even harder than before, right there in that shallow between his pectoral muscles.
Luca moved so fast she had no time to process it.
She poked him, then she was sprawled across the hard wall of his chest with her offending hand twisted behind her back. It was more than dizzying. It was like toppling from the top of one of the mountains that ringed the lake, then hurtling end over end toward the earth.
Her heart careened against her ribs, and his darkly gorgeous face was far too close to hers and she was touching him, her dress not nearly enough of a barrier to keep her from noticing unhelpful things like his scent, a hint of citrus and spice. The heat that blazed from him, as if he was his own furnace. And that deceptively languid strength of his that made something deep inside her flip over.
“This, you fool,” Luca bit out, his mouth so close to hers she could taste the words against her own lips. She could taste him, and she shuddered helplessly, completely unable to conceal her reaction. “This is what I think of you.”
And then he crushed his mouth to hers.