Unwrapping the Castelli Secret
Part of the Castelli Brothers Series
An heir for Christmas!
Five years ago, Lily Holloway walked away from a car crash, turning her back on the forbidden passion she shared with her stepbrother, Rafael Castelli. Nothing could make Lily return to the irresistible Italian’s demanding world.
Now, when their paths cross again, Lily is desperate to retain her freedom and claims amnesia has blocked her memories of him. Yet all deception is quickly burnt away by the incredible attraction that still simmers between them.
But he’s found her, and she knows Rafael will soon discover her greatest secret…their son!
Secret Heirs of Billionaires
There are some things money can’t buy…
Unwrapping the Castelli Secret
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.
, 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, .
And then he’d seen .
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 .
, he ordered himself coldly.
“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.
It wasn’t Lily. It was never Lily. And yet every time this happened, Rafael raced after the poor stranger who looked a bit too much like his memories and made a goddamned fool of himself.
“This will be the last time you indulge this weakness,” he muttered to himself, and then he set out after this latest incarnation of the woman he knew——he’d never see again.
One more time to stamp out the last spark of that nasty little flame of hope that still refused to die. One last time to prove what he already knew: Lily was gone, she was never coming back, and he would never, ever see her equal.
And maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t look for her in all these strangers’ faces if he hadn’t been such a bastard to her in the first place.
Rafael doubted he’d ever shift the guilt of all he’d done from its usual place, crouched fat and greasy and bristling with malice in the spot where his soul should have been. But tonight, in this charming little town in a part of America he’d never visited before and likely wouldn’t visit again, he would lay what he could of his wretched history to rest.
He didn’t expect peace. He didn’t deserve it. But he was done chasing phantoms.
This had to end. He had to end it.
He couldn’t see the face of his quarry, only the fine line of her back and the hint of her willowy form as she walked briskly away from him. She was wrapped up against the December chill in a long black coat and a bright scarf, with only hints of honey-colored hair peeking out from beneath the black knit hat she wore tugged low over her ears. Her hands were thrust deep into her pockets. She was weaving her way through the crowds in a manner that suggested she knew exactly where she was going, and she didn’t look back.
And the memories rolled through him like waves against the rocks, crashing over him one after the next. Lily, the only woman who’d ever captured him so completely. Lily, whom he’d lost. Lily, his forbidden lover, his secret and dirty passion, whom he’d hidden from the world and then had had to mourn as if she was no more than the daughter of his father’s fourth wife. As if she had been nothing more to him than that.
He’d hated himself for so long now it was indistinguishable from that grief that never quite left him. That grief that had transformed him—turning him from a too-rich dilettante who’d been content to throw his family money around rather than make any himself into one of the most formidable businessmen in Italy.
That, too, had taken years. It had been another form of penance.
“Inside you is the seed of a far better man,” Lily had said to him the last time he’d seen her, after he’d made her come and then made her cry; his specialty. “I know it. But if you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll kill it off before it ever has a chance to grow.”
“You mistake me for someone who to grow,” Rafael had replied with all that confidently lazy indifference he’d had no idea he’d spend the rest of his life hating himself for feeling. “I don’t need to be a bloody garden, Lily. I’m happy as I am.”
It was one of the last conversations they’d ever had.
His heart was a hard, almost painful drum inside his chest. His breath came like clouds against the deepening night. He tracked her past this novelty shop, that restaurant and a band of singers in period dress singing “Ave Maria” while he drank in as if it was a prayer.
As if this time around, after all these years of regret, he could appreciate that it was the last time he’d ever see it.
He followed her as she left the clamor and bright mess of the downtown mall and started down one of the side streets, marveling at her hauntingly familiar silhouette, that figure he could have drawn in his sleep, the sheer perfection of this woman who yet looked exactly the way he remembered her.
His Lily, stalking off down a foggy San Francisco street, claiming she wanted nothing more than to get the hell away from him and their twisted relationship at last. Back then he’d laughed, so arrogantly certain she’d come back to him the way she always did. The way she’d been coming back to him since the day they’d first crossed that line when she’d been nineteen.
Another tryst in a hall closet, perhaps, with his hand wrapped over her mouth to muffle her cries as they drove each other crazy only feet away from their families. Another stolen night in her bedroom in her mother’s stately home in the moneyed hills of Sausalito, tearing each other apart in the stillness of the northern California night, hands in fists and teeth clenched against the pillows. A hotel room here, a stolen moment in the gardening shed of a summer rental there—all so tawdry, now, in his recollection. All so stupid and wasteful. But then, he’d been so certain there would always be .
His mobile vibrated in his pocket; the assistant he’d left back in that café, he assumed, wondering where in the hell Rafael was. Or perhaps even his brother, Luca, irritated by Rafael’s absence when there was work to be done. Either way, he ignored it.
The afternoon was falling fast into evening and Rafael was a different man now than the one he’d been five years ago. He had responsibilities these days; he welcomed them. He couldn’t simply chase women across cities the way he had in his youth, though back then, of course, he’d done such things for entirely different reasons. Gluttony, not guilt. He was no longer the inveterate womanizer he’d been then, content to enjoy his questionable relationship with his stepsister in private and all his other and varied conquests in the bright glare of the public eye, never caring if that hurt her.
Never caring about much of anything at all, if he was honest, except keeping himself safe from the claws of emotional entanglements.
cara, he’d told her with all the offhanded certainty of the shallow, pleasure-seeking fool he’d been then.
He was no longer the selfish and twisted young man who had taken a certain delight in carrying on his shameful affair right under the noses of their blended families, simply because he could. Because Lily could not resist him.
The truth was, he’d been equally unable to resist her. A terrible reality he’d only understood when it was much too late.
He’d changed since those days, ghosts or no ghosts. But he was still Rafael Castelli. And this was the very last time he intended to wallow in his guilt. It was time to grow up, accept that he could not change his past no matter how he wished it could be otherwise and stop imagining he saw a dead woman around every corner.
There was no bringing Lily back. There was only living with himself, with what he’d done, as best he could.
The woman slowed that mesmerizing walk of hers, pulling her hand from her pocket and pointing a key fob at a nearby car. The alarm beeped as she stepped into the street and swung around to open the driver’s door, and the light from the street lamp just blooming to life above her caught her full in the face—
And hit him like a battle-axe to the gut.
There was a buzzing in his head, a dizzy, lurching thing that almost cut him in half. She jerked against the car door and left it shut, and he had the dim realization that he’d barked out some kind of order. Or had it been her name? She froze where she stood, staring back at him across the hood of a stout little American wagon that could fit six or seven Italian cars, the frigid sidewalk, the whole of the night.
But there was no mistaking who she was.
It could be no other. Not with those fine, sculpted cheekbones that perfectly framed her wide, carnal mouth that he’d tasted a thousand times. Not with that perfect heart-shaped face that belonged in a painting in the Uffizi. Her eyes were still that dreamy, sleepy blue that reminded him of California winters. Her hair poked out from beneath her knit hat to tumble down over her shoulders, still that rich summer honey, golds and auburns combined. Her brows were the same shade, arched slightly to give her the look of a seventeenth-century Madonna, and she looked as if she had not aged a single day in five years.
He thought his heart might have dropped from his chest. He felt it plummet to the ground. He took a breath, then another, expecting her features to rearrange themselves into a stranger’s as he stared. Expecting to jolt awake somewhere to find this all a dream. Expecting —
He dragged in a deep breath, then let it out. Another. And it was still .
“Lily,” he whispered.
Then he was moving. He closed the distance between them in a moment, and there was nothing but noise inside him. A great din, pounding at him and tearing at him and ripping him apart, and his hands shook when he reached to take her by the shoulders. She made a startled sort of sound, but he was drinking her in, looking for signs. For evidence, like that faint freckle to the left of her mouth, to mark that dent in her cheek when she smiled.
And his hands knew the shape of her shoulders even beneath that thick coat, slender yet strong. He had the sense of that easy fit he remembered, his body and hers, as if they’d been fashioned as puzzle pieces that interlocked. He recognized the way her head fell back, the way her lips parted.
“What are you doing?”
He saw her lips form the words, read them from her mouth, but he couldn’t make sense of them. He only knew that was her voice——the voice he’d never expected to hear again, faintly husky and indisputably Lily’s. It was like a sledgehammer through him, inside him. Wrecking him and remaking him at once.
And the scent of her, that indefinable fragrance that was some combination of hand lotion and moisturizer, shampoo and perfume, all rolled together and mixed with the simple truth of her beneath it all. All Lily. His Lily.
Or this was a psychotic break. And Rafael didn’t give much of a damn which.
He simply hauled her toward him and took her mouth with his.
She tasted the way she always had, like light. Like laughter. Like the deepest, darkest cravings and the heaviest need. He was careful at first, tasting her, testing her, his whole body exulting in this impossibility, this thing he’d dreamed a thousand times only to wake up without her, again and again across whole years.
But then, the way it always had, that electric thing that arced between them shifted, blasted into heat lightning and took him whole. So he merely angled his head for that perfect fit he remembered so well and devoured her.
His lost love. His true love.
, he thought, his grasp on the English he’d been fluent in since he was a boy eluding him, as if only Italian could make any sense of this.
His hands were in her hair, against her cheeks, when she jerked her mouth from his. Their breath mingled into another cloud between them. Her eyes were that impossible blue that had haunted him for half a decade, the color of the crisp San Francisco sky.
“Where the hell have you been?” he grated out at her, sounding more heavily Italian than he had in years. “What the hell is this?”
“Let go of me.”
“What?” He didn’t understand.
“You seem very upset,” she said, in that voice that was etched into his soul, as much a part of him as his own. Her blue eyes were dark with something that looked like panic, which didn’t make any kind of sense. “But I need you to let me go. Right now. I promise I won’t call the police.”
“The police.” He couldn’t make any sense of this, and only partly because of that great buzzing still in his head. “Why would you call the police?”
Rafael studied her, that lovely face he’d believed he’d never see again. Not in this life. There was heat on her cheeks now, staining them pink. Her mouth was slick from his. But she wasn’t melting against him the way she always had before at his slightest touch, and if he wasn’t entirely mistaken, the hands she’d lifted to his chest were pushing at him.
As if, for the first time in almost as long as he’d known her, she was trying to push him away.
Everything in him rebelled, but he let her go. And he more than half expected her to disappear into the darkness drawing tight around them, or a plume of smoke, but she didn’t. She held his gaze for a long, cool moment, and then, very deliberately, she wiped her mouth with one hand.
Rafael couldn’t define the thing that seared through him then, too bright and much too hot. He only knew it wasn’t the least bit civilized.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded, in the voice he only ever had to use once with his staff. Never twice.
Lily stiffened, but she was still looking at him strangely. Too strangely.
“Please step back.” Her voice was low and intense. “We might appear to be alone here, but I assure you, there are all kinds of people who will hear me scream.”
“Scream?” He felt something like ill. Or dull. Or—but there were no words for the devastation inside him. There was nothing but need and fury, grief and despair. And that terrible hope he’d held on to all this time, though he’d known it was unhealthy. He’d known it was a weakness he could ill afford. He’d known it was sentimental and morbid.
He’d considered it the least of his penance. But she was alive.
“If you assault me again—”
But the fact she was standing here, on a side street in Charlottesville, Virginia, made about as little sense to him as her apparent death had five years ago. He brushed aside whatever she was saying, scowling down at her as the haze began to recede and the shock of this eased. Slightly.
“How did you survive that accident?” he demanded. “How did you end up here, of all places? Where have you been all this time?” Her words caught up with him and he blinked. “Did you say ?”
He hadn’t imagined it. She edged away from him, one hand on the side of the car. Her gaze was dark and troubled, and she certainly hadn’t greeted him the way he might have expected Lily would—if, of course, he’d ever allowed himself to imagine that she could really still be alive.
Not a ghost this time. The real, flesh-and-blood Lily, standing before him on a cold, dark street.
Even if she was looking at him as if he was a monster.
“Why,” he asked, very softly, “are you looking at me as if you don’t know who I am?”
She frowned. “Because I don’t.”
Rafael laughed, though it was a cracked and battered sort of sound.
“You don’t,” he repeated, as if he was sounding out the words. “You don’t know .”
“I’m getting in my car now,” she told him, too carefully, as if he was some kind of wild animal or psychotic. “You should know that I have my hand on the panic button on my key chain. If you make another move toward me, I will—”
“Lily, stop this,” he ordered her, scowling. Or shaking. Or both.
“My name is not Lily.” Her frown deepened. “Did you fall and hit your head? It’s very icy and they aren’t as good about putting down salt as they—”
“I did not hit my head and you are, in fact, Lily Holloway,” he gritted out at her, though he wanted to shout it. He wanted to shout down the world. “Do you imagine I wouldn’t recognize you? I’ve known you since you were sixteen.”
“My name is Alison Herbert,” she replied, eyeing him as if he’d shouted after all, and perhaps in tongues. As he’d done any of the wild, dark things inside his head, none of which could be classified as remotely civilized. “You look like the kind of man people remember, but I’m afraid I don’t.”
She moved back and opened the car door beside her, putting it between them. A barrier. A barrier. “I can call nine-one-one for you. Maybe you’re hurt.”
“Your name is Lily Holloway.” He threw it at her, but she didn’t react. She only gazed back at him with her too-blue eyes, and he realized he must have knocked that cap from her head when he’d kissed her so wildly, as her hair gleamed in the streetlight’s glow, a strawberry blond tangle. He recognized that, too. That indefinable color, only hers. “You grew up outside San Francisco. Your father died when you were a toddler, and your mother married my father, Gianni Castelli, when you were a teenager.”
She shook her head, which was better than that blank stare.
“You’re afraid of heights, spiders and the stomach flu. You’re allergic to shellfish but you love lobster. You graduated from Berkeley with a degree in English literature after writing an absolutely useless thesis on Anglo-Saxon elegies that will serve you in no way whatsoever in any job market. You have a regrettable tattoo of your namesake flower on your right hip and up along your side that you got as an act of drunken rebellion. You were on a spring break trip to Mexico that year and sampled entirely too much tequila. Do you think I’m making these things up to amuse myself?”
“I think you need help,” she said with a certain firmness that didn’t match his memories of her at all. “Medical help.”
“You lost your virginity when you were nineteen,” he threw at her, everything inside him a pitched and mighty roar. “ You might not remember it, but I bloody well do. I’m the love of your goddamn life!”
End of excerpt
Unwrapping the Castelli Secret
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