Claimed in the Italian’s Castle

Satisfyingly Spicy

Caitlin’s contribution to the Harlequin Presents fairy tale miniseries, Once Upon A Temptation, is a re-telling of Bluebeard!

She had to marry him.
But she can choose to love him…

When innocent, piano-playing Angelina must marry enigmatic Benedetto Franceschi, she should be terrified. After all, Benedetto’s previous six wives have vanished without a trace. But their electrifying chemistry forges an unspoken connection…

Angelina’s composed demeanour belies a fierce spirit that Benedetto is inescapably, irresistibly drawn to. For so long, secluded in his luxurious castle, he’s believed himself as monstrous as the rumours make him out to be. But Angelina isn’t afraid. Can he match her courage to become the husband she deserves?

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Claimed in the Italian’s Castle

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Her sisters were in a dither.

This was not an unusual state of affairs. Petronella and Dorothea Charteris had never met a molehill they couldn’t make into the Alps. Angelina, the younger sister they preferred to exclude from anything and everything, usually ignored them.

But as Angelina slipped through the servants’ passageway this evening, racing to change for dinner after another long day of hiding from her family in this petri dish they called their home, she paused. Because she could hear the rise and fall of her sisters’ voices a little too well, and they weren’t discussing one of their usual topics—like why they were cruelly sequestered away in the family mausoleum as their youth and vitality slipped away…

Because it never occurred to them to leave and make their own way, as Angelina planned to do, when they could sit at home and complain instead.

“We shall be slaughtered in our sleep!” Petronella screeched.

Angelina paused, there on the other side of the paper-thin wall of the drawing room, because that sounded extreme. Even for the notably dramatic Petronella.

“It will be me, I am sure of it,” Dorothea pronounced in the trembling tones of an Early Christian Martyr. Her happy place, in other words. “He will spirit me away, and no. No, Petronella. Do not attempt to make this better.” Angelina could hear nothing that suggested Petronella had attempted anything of the kind. “It will be a sacrifice—but one I am prepared to make for the sake of our family!”

Angelina blinked. Dorothea preferred to talk about sacrifices rather than make any, in her experience. What on earth was going on?

Petronella wailed, then. Like a banshee—a sound she had spent a whole summer some years back perfecting, waking everyone round the clock with what their mother had icily called that caterwauling. That had been the summer Petronella had wanted to go on a Pilates retreat to Bali with the loose group of pointless women of indiscernible means she called friends—when she wasn’t posting competing selfies on social media. Petronella had claimed the screams had nothing at all to do with Papa’s refusal to fund her trip.

“Everything is blood and pain, Dorothea!” she howled now. “We are doomed!

That sounded like the usual drama, so Angelina rolled her eyes. Then, conscious that time was passing and her happiness was directly related to remaining invisible to her stern mother, she hurried along the passage. She took the back stairs two at a time until she reached the family wing. Though it was less a wing and more the far side of the once great house that everyone pretended had not fallen into ruin.

Charming, her mother liked to say stoutly whether or not anyone had asked. Historic.

Angelina was well aware that in the village, they used other words. More appropriate words. Rundown, for example. She had once pretended not to hear the grocer’s wife refer to the once proud Charteris family estate, nestled in what bits of the French countryside her father hadn’t sold off to pay his debts, as “that crumbling old heap.

Though it had never been made clear to her whether the woman referred to the house or Angelina’s father.

Either way, while her sisters flounced about screaming and carrying on about everything from the lukewarm temperature of their thin soup at lunch to the lack of funds for the adventures they wished to take with their far flashier friends—because they wished to perform it on social media, not because they had an adventurous bone in either one of their bodies—Angelina had spent another pleasant afternoon practicing piano in the conservatory. A room not a single member of her family had been inside in the last decade, as far as she knew. Mostly because there was nothing there any longer. Just the old piano and Angelina, who far preferred the company of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to her sisters.

She had nurtured grand dreams of leaving the family entirely and going off to Paris when she hit eighteen. Or anywhere at all, as long as it was elsewhere. But there had been no money for what her father had sniffed and called her “vanity project.”

There had been money for Petronella’s Year of Yoga, as Angelina recalled. And for Dorothea’s “art,” which had been two years in Milan with nothing to show for it but some paint smudged on canvases, a fortune spent on wine and cafes, and a period of dressing in deeply dramatic scarves.

But that was a long time ago. That was when Papa had still pretended he had money.

“Of course there’s no money for you to play piano,” Dorothea had scoffed. “When Petronella and I have scrimped and saved these past years in the vain hope that Papa might throw us a decent debutante ball. Ironically, of course, but still.

Angelina had learned early on that it was better not to argue with her older sisters. That was a quick descent into quicksand and there was no getting out of it on one piece. So she had not pointed out the many problems with her eldest sister’s statement. First, that Dorothea was thirty and Petronella twenty-six—a bit long in the tooth for debutante balls, ironic or otherwise. And second, that there was no point in pronouncing oneself a debutante of any description when one was a member of a rather shabby family clinging desperately to the very outskirts of European high society, such as it was.

Her sisters did not like to think of themselves as shabby. Or clingy, come to that.

Even if it was obvious that the house and family were not in a decline. The decline had already happened and they were living in the bitter ashes that remained.

She slipped into her bedchamber, staring as she always did at the water damage on her bare walls. Her ceiling. All the evidence of winters past, burst pipes, and no money to fix it. Her mother claimed that the family’s reliance on the old ways was a virtue, not a necessity. She waxed rhapsodic about fires in all the fireplaces to heat the house, no matter how cold it got in this part of France. She called it atmospheric. It is our preference, she would tell anyone who even looked as if they might ask. A family custom.

But the truth was in the cold that never lifted in this place of stone and despair, not even in the summertime. The house was too old, too drafty. It was June now and still chilly, and the picked-bare rooms and stripped walls didn’t help. Slowly, ever so slowly, priceless rugs disappeared from the floors and paintings from their hooks. Family heirlooms no longer took pride of place in the echoing rooms.

When asked, Mother would laugh gaily, and claim that it was high time for a little spring cleaning—even when it was not spring.

The more time Papa spent locked up his office, or off on another one of those business trips he returned from looking grim and drawn, the more the house became a crumbling patchwork of what had once been a certain glory.

Not that Angelina cared. She had her piano. She had music. And unlike her sisters, she had no interest at all in scaling the heights of society—whether that was bright young things who called themselves influencers, who Petronella desperately emulated, or the dizzy heights of the European once-nobles who turned Dorothea’s head.

All she wanted to do was play her piano.

It had been her escape as a child and it still was now. Though more and more she dreamed that it might also be her ticket out of this house. And away from these people she knew only through an accident of birth.

She hurried into the bath attached to her chamber, listening for the comforting symphony of the leaking pipes. She wanted a bath, but the hot water was iffy and she’d spent too much time in the servants’ passage, so she settled instead for a brisk, cold wash in the sink.

Because evening was coming on fast, and that meant it was time for the nightly charade.

Mother insisted. The Charteris family might be disappearing where they stood, but Mother intended they should go out holding fast to some remnant of their former grandeur. That was why they maintained what tiny staff they could when surely the salaries should have gone toward Papa’s debts. And it was why, without fail, they were all forced to parade down to a formal dinner every evening.

And Margrete Charteris, who in her youth had been one of the fabled Laurent sisters, did not take kindly to the sight of her youngest in jeans and a sweater with holes in it. Not to mention, Angelina thought as she stared in the mirror, her silvery blond hair wild and unruly around her and that expression on her face that the piano always brought out. The one Mother referred to as offensively intense.

Rome could be burning in the drawing room and still Angelina would be expected to smile politely, wear something appropriate, and tame her hair into a ladylike chignon.

She looked at herself critically in the mirror as she headed for the door again, because it was too easy to draw her mother’s fire. And far better if she took a little extra time now to avoid it.

The dress she’d chosen from her dwindling wardrobe was a trusty one. A modest shift in a jacquard fabric that made her look like something out of a forties film. And because she knew it would irritate her sisters, she pulled out the pearls her late grandmother had given her on her sixteenth birthday and fastened them around her neck. They were moody, freshwater pearls, in jagged shapes and dark, changeable colors and sat heavily around her neck, like the press of hands.

Angelina had to keep them hidden where none of her sisters, her mother, or Matrice, the sly and sullen housemaid, could find them. Or they would have long since been switched out, sold off, and replaced with paste.

She smoothed down the front of her dress and stepped back out into the hallway as the clock began to strike the hour. Seven o’clock.

This time, she walked sedately down the main hall and took the moldering grand stair to the main floor. She only glanced at the paintings that still hung there in the front hall—the ones that could not be sold, for they had so little value outside the Charteris family. There were all her scowling ancestors lined up in ornate frames that had perhaps once been real gold. And were now more likely spray painted gold, not even gilt.

Angelina had to bite back laughter at the sudden image of her mother sneaking about in the middle of the night, spray painting hastily-thrown-together old frames and slapping them up over all these paintings of her austere in-laws. Margrete was a woman who liked to make sweeping pronouncements about her own consequence and made up for her loss of her status with a commensurate amount of offended dignity. She would no more spray paint something than she would scale the side of the old house and dance naked around the chimneys.

Another image that struck Angelina as hilarious.

She was stifling her laughter behind her hand as she walked into the drawing room, just before the old clock stopped chiming.

“Are you snickering?” Mother demanded coolly the moment Angelina’s body cleared the doorway. She looked up from the needlepoint she never finished, drawing the thread this way and that without ever completing a project. Because it was what gently bred women did, she’d told them when they were small. It wasn’t about completion, it was about succumbing to one’s duty—which, now she thought about it, had been the sum total of her version of “the talk” when Angelina left girlhood. “What a ghastly, unladylike sight. Stop it at once.”

Angelina did her best to wipe her face clean of the offending laughter. She bowed her head because it was easier and dutifully went to take her place on the lesser of the settees. Her sisters were flung on the larger one opposite. Dorothea wore her trademark teal, though the dress she wore made her look, to Angelina’s way of thinking, like an overstuffed hen. Petronella, by contrast, always wore smoky charcoal shades, the better to emphasize her sloe-eyed, pouty-lipped beauty. None of which was apparent tonight, as her face looked red and mottled.

That was Angelina’s first inkling that something might actually be truly wrong.

“Have you told her?” Petronella demanded. It took Angelina a moment to realize she was speaking to their mother, in a wild and accusing tone that Angelina, personally, would not have used on Margrete. “Have you told her of her grisly fate?”

Dorothea glared at Angelina, then turned that glare back on Petronella. “Don’t be silly, Pet. He’s hardly going to choose Angelina. Why would he? She’s a teenager.”

Petronella made an aggrieved noise. “You know what men are like. The younger the better. Men like him can afford to indulge themselves as they please.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” Angelina said coolly. She did not add, as usual. “But for the sake of argument, I should point out that I am not, in fact, a teenager. I turned twenty a few months ago.”

“Why would he choose Angelina?” Dorothea asked again, shrilly. Her dirty-blond hair was cut into a sleek bob that shook when she spoke. “It will be me, of course. As eldest daughter, it is my duty to prostrate myself before this threat. For all of us.

“Do come off it,” Petronella snapped right back. “You’re gagging for it to be you. He’s slaughtered six wives and will no doubt chop your head off on your wedding night, but by all means. At least you’ll die a rich man’s widow.” She shifted, brushing out her long, silky, golden blond hair. “Besides. It’s obvious he’ll choose me.”

“Why is that obvious?” Dorothea asked icily.

Angelina knew where this was going immediately. She settled into her seat, crossing her ankles demurely, because Mother was always watching. Even when she appeared to be concentrating on her needlepoint.

Petronella cast her eyes down toward her lap, but couldn’t quite keep the smug look off of her face. “I have certain attributes that men find attractive. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Too many men, Pet,” Dorothea retorted, smirking. “He’s looking for a wife, not used goods.”

And when they began screeching at each other, Angelina turned toward her mother. “Am I meant to know what they’re talking about?”

Margrete gazed at her elder two daughters as if she wasn’t entirely certain who they were or where they’d come from. She stabbed her sharp needle into her canvas, repeatedly. Then she shifted her cold gaze to Angelina.

“Your father has presented us with a marvelous opportunity, dear,” she said.

The dear was concerning. Angelina found herself sitting a bit straighter. And playing closer attention than she might have otherwise. Margrete was not the sort who tossed out endearments willy-nilly. Or at all. For her to use one now, while Dorothea and Petronella bickered, made a cold premonition prickle at the back of Angelina’s neck.

“An opportunity?” she asked.

Angelina thought she’d kept her voice perfectly clear of any inflection, but her mother’s cold glare told her otherwise.

“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, young lady,” Margrete snipped at her. “Your father’s been at his wit’s end, running himself ragged attempting to care for this family. Are these the thanks he gets?”

Angelina knew better than to answer that question.

Margrete carried on in the same tone. “I lie awake at night, asking myself how a man as pure of intention as your poor father could be cursed with three daughters so ungrateful that all they do is complain about the bounty before them.”

Angelina rather thought her mother lay awake at night wondering how it was she’d come to marry so far beneath her station, which seemed remarkably unlike the woman Angelina knew. Margrete, as she liked to tell anyone who would listen, and especially when she’d had too much wine, had had her choice of young men. Angelina couldn’t understand how she’d settled on Anthony Charteris, the last in a long line once littered with titles, all of which they’d lost in this or that revolution. Not to mention a robust hereditary fortune, very little of which remained. And almost all of which, if Angelina had overheard the right conversations correctly, her father had gambled and lost in one of his numerous ill-considered business deals.

She didn’t say any of that either.

“He’s marrying us off,” Petronella announced. She cultivated a sulky look, preferring to pout prettily in pictures, but tonight it looked real. That was alarming enough. But worse was Dorothea’s sage nod from beside her, as if the two of them hadn’t been at each other’s throats moments before. And as if Dorothea, who liked to claim she was a bastion of rational thought despite all evidence to the contrary, actually agreed with Petronella’s theatrical take.

“We are but chattel,” Dorothea intoned. “Bartered away like a cow or a handful of seeds.”

“He will not be marrying off all three of you to the same man,” Mother said reprovingly. “Such imaginations! If only this level of commitment to storytelling could be applied to helping dig the family out of the hole we find ourselves in. Perhaps then your father would not have to lower himself to this grubby bartering. Your ancestors would spin their graves if they knew.”

“Bartering would be one thing,” Dorothea retorted in a huff. “This is not bartering, Mother. This is nothing less than a guillotine.”

Angelina waited for her mother to sigh and recommend her daughters take to the stage, as she did with regularity—something that would have caused instant, shame-induced cardiac arrest should they ever have followed her advice. But when Mother only stared back at her older daughters, stone-faced, that prickle at the back of Angelina’s neck started to intensify. She sat straighter.

“Surely we all knew that the expectation was that we would find rich husbands, someday,” Angelina said, carefully. Because that was one of the topics she avoided, having always assumed that long before she did as expected and married well enough to suit her mother’s aspirations, if not her father’s wallet, she would make her escape. “Assuming any such men exist who wished to take on charity cases such as ours.”

“Charity cases!” Margrete looked affronted. “I hope your father never hears you utter such a phrase, Angelina. Such an ungrateful, vicious thing to say. That the Charteris name should be treated with such contempt by one who bears it! If I had not been present at your birth I would doubt you were my daughter.”

Given that Margrete expressed such doubts in a near constant refrain, Angelina did not find that notion as hurtful she might have otherwise.

“This isn’t about marrying,” Petronella said, the hint of tears in her voice, though there was no trace of moisture in her eyes. “I’ve always wanted to marry, personally.”

Dorothea sniffed. “Just last week you claimed it was positively medieval to expect you to pay attention to men simply because they met Father’s requirements.”

Petronella waved an impatient hand. The fact she didn’t snap at Dorothea for saying such a thing—or attempting to say such a thing—made the prickle at Angelina’s nape bloom into something far colder. And sharper, as it began to slide down her spine.

“This isn’t about men or marriage. It’s about murder.” Petronella actually sat up straight to say that part, a surprise indeed, given that her spine better resembled melted candle wax most of the time. “We’re talking about the Butcher of Castello Nero.”

Invoking one of the most infamous villains in Europe—maybe in the whole of the world—took Angelina’s breath away. “Is someone going to tell me what we’re talking about?”

“I invite you to call our guest that vile nickname to his face, Petronella,” Margrete suggested, her voice a quiet fury as she glared at the larger settee. “If he really is what you say he is, how do you imagine he will react?”

And to Angelina’s astonishment, her selfish, spoiled rotten sister—who very rarely bothered to lift her face from a contemplation of the many self-portraits she took with her mobile phone—paled.

“Benedetto Franceschi,” Dorothea intoned. “The richest man in all of Europe.” She was in such a state that her bob actually trembled against her jawline. “And the most murderous.”

“Stop this right now.” Margrete cast her needlepoint aside and rose in an outraged rustle of skirts and fury. Then she gazed down at all of them over her magnificent, affronted bosom. “I will tolerate this self-centered spitefulness no longer.”

“I still don’t know what’s going on,” Angelina pointed out.

“Because you prefer to live in your little world of piano playing and secret excursions up and down the servants’ stairs, Angelina,” Margrete snapped. “This is reality, I’m afraid.”

And that, at last, made Angelina feel real fear.

It was not that she thought she’d actually managed to pull something over on her mother. It was that she’d lived in this pleasant fiction they’d all created for the whole of her life. That they were not on the brink of destitution. That her father would turn it all around tomorrow. That they were ladies of leisure, lounging about the ruined old house because they chose it, not because there were no funds to do much of anything else.

Angelina hadn’t had the slightest notion that her mother paid such close attention to her movements. She preferred to imagine herself the ignored daughter.

Here, now, what could she do but lower her gaze?

“And you two.” Margrete turned her cold glare to the other settee. “Petronella, forever whoring about as if giving away for free what we might have sold does anything but make you undesirable and useless. Wealthy heiresses can do as they like, because the money makes up for it. What is it you intend to bring to the table?”

When Petronella said nothing, Mother’s frosty gaze moved to her oldest daughter. “And you, Dorothea. You turned up your nose at a perfectly acceptable marriage offer, and for what? To traipse about the Continent, trailing after the heirs to lesser houses as if half of France doesn’t claim they’re related to some other dauphin?”

Dorothea gasped. “He was Papa’s age! He made my skin crawl!”

“The more practical woman he made his wife is younger than you and can afford to buy herself a new skin.” Margrete adjusted her dress, though it was perfect already. Even fabric dared not challenge her. “The three of you have done nothing to help this family. All you do is take. That ends tonight.”

Angelina found herself sitting straighter. She was used to drama, but this was on a different level. For one thing, she had never seen her sisters ashen-faced before tonight.

“Your sisters know this already, but let me repeat it for everyone’s edification.” Margrete looked at each of them in turn, but then settled her cold glare on Angelina. “Benedetto Franceschi will be at dinner tonight. He is looking for a new wife and your father has told him that he can choose amongst the three of you. I am not interested in your thoughts or feelings on this matter. If he chooses you, you will say yes. Do you understand me?”

“He has had six wives so far,” Petronella hissed. “All have died or disappeared under mysterious circumstances. All, Mother!”

Angelina felt cold on the outside. Her hands, normally quick and nimble, were like blocks of ice.

But deep inside her, a dark thing pulsed.

Because she knew about Benedetto Franceschi. “The Butcher of Castello Nero,” Petronella had said. Everyone alive knew of the man so wealthy he lived in his own castle on his own private island—when the tide was high. When the tide was low, it was possible to reach the castello over a road that was little more than a sandbar, but, they whispered, those who made that trek did not always come back.

He had married six times. All of his wives had died or disappeared without a trace, declared dead in absentia. And despite public outcry, there had never been so much as an inquest.

All of those things were true.

What was also true was that when Angelina had been younger and there had still been money enough for things like tuition, she and her friends had sighed over pictures of Benedetto Franceschi in the press. That dark hair, like ink. Those flashing dark eyes that were like fire. And that mouth of his that made girls in convent schools like the one Angelina had attended feel the need to make a detailed confession. Or three.

If he chooses you, came a voice inside her, as clear as a bell, you can leave this place forever.

“He will choose one of us,” Petronella said, still pale, but not backing down from her mother’s ferocious glare. “He will pick one of us, carry her off, and then kill her. That is what our father has agreed to. Because he thinks that the loss of a daughter is worth it if he gets to keep this house and cancel out his debts. Which man is worse? The one who butchers women or the man who supplies him?”

Angelina bit back a gasp. Her mother only glared.

Out in the cavernous hallways, empty of so much of their former splendor, the clock rang out the half hour.

Margrete stiffened. “It is time. Come now, girls. We must not keep destiny waiting, no matter how you feel about it.”

And there was no mutiny. No revolt.

They all lived in what remained of this sad place, after all. This pile of stone and regret.

Angelina rose obediently, falling into place behind her sisters as they headed out.

“To the death,” Petronella kept whispering to Dorothea, who was uncharacteristically silent.

But it would be worth the risk, Angelina couldn’t help but think—a sense of giddy defiance sweeping over her—if it meant she got to live, even briefly.

Somewhere other than here.

End of excerpt

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Print: May 19, 2020

eBook: Jun 1, 2020

ISBN: 9781488059575

Claimed in the Italian’s Castle

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