Enzo Cavalieri’s glare was like a hand wrapped around my throat.
His strong fingers slowly forcing the air from my lungs.
I tilted my chin to the side, hiding my face behind the wide brim of my hat.
It didn’t help.
I hadn’t seen Enzo in close to seven months… not since that awful night.
The night that changed—everything.
He was still as handsome as the devil himself, and if the rumors were to be believed about my sister, just as evil.
I clawed at the sheer black veil draped over the black pearl wheel hat brim and secured around my neck, obscuring my face. Loosening the folds, I inhaled a shaking breath, grateful no one could see the hot flush on my cheeks.
As a uniformed server passed, I plucked at his sleeve, halting him. His tray carried a small crystal plate of amaretti cookies surrounded by delicate bone china cups of espresso. I lifted one of the espressos by the saucer. Raising my veil as high as my nose, I tried to take a sip of espresso, but my stomach turned at its bitterness. The cup clattered against the saucer as my hand trembled putting it back in place. Several heads turned in my direction. I pulled the veil down over my face again and set the cup and saucer onto the nearest table.
Risking another glance under the brim, the blood in my veins crystallized into tiny sharp icicles which pierced every nerve ending as I froze in place under Enzo’s continued intense, icy scrutiny.
What had I been thinking?
Slapping him like that in front of all those people… and in church, no less.
Everyone knew the Cavalieris were practically a force of nature in Italy.
Their name was synonymous with power and wealth.
It was no coincidence their name meant knight. Their family legacy stretched back to the time of feudal lords, probably even further. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ancient papyrus scrolls buried in the caves of the nearby Apennine mountains with the Cavalieri name attached to some Roman general or forgotten emperor.
They owned half of western Italy, including the village I grew up in which was named after them.
There wasn’t a family I knew that didn’t somehow owe their livelihoods to the beneficence of the Cavalieris, including my own.
So to freaking slap Enzo, the eldest son, the heir to the Cavalieri throne? In church?
In the middle of my sister’s funeral?
Never mind he was my brother-in-law.
Never mind, half the village believed he murdered my sister.
Never mind he had been the man I desperately loved before my sister stole him from me.
Never mind, he was the reason why I fled to America.
Never mind the very sight of him brought all those bitter memories flooding back. Weighing down my heart until I thought it would become unmoored from within my body, sending it crashing into my bones, breaking them like a loose anchor splintering weathered wood.
I clenched my jaw and stared straight ahead, willing the threatening tears not to fall. My nose itched. My eyes stung. My eyelids fluttered, the alternating flashes of bright sunlight and pitch-black darkness disorienting me. Swaying, I dug my fingernails into the edge of the table for stability.
I had the dizzying urge to faint.
Dark oblivion would be a blessed relief right now. A salvation from this living hell.
The cloying scent of carnation, bergamot, and amber preceded my mother’s approach. My earliest memory of her was the stench of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume, which clung to her like a moth-eaten fur wrap. It was why I hated the scent, or even the sight, of carnations.
She dug her claws into the soft flesh of my upper arm, holding me in place to hiss, “Stop making a spectacle of yourself, Bianca,” in my ear.
I bit the inside of my cheek, the pain centering me. “My apologies, Claudia.” I hadn’t been allowed to call her “Mother” in public since I was six years old. “Exactly how should one behave when attending a murdered sister’s funeral?”
She tightened her grip.
I winced but resisted the urge to pull away. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
“For starters, you don’t slap the grieving husband in front of the priest and Don Cavalieri like some common trollop,” she snapped, her hot breath wreaking of menthol cigarettes and Amaro liquor. “And stop using that vulgar word.”
I lifted one eyebrow. “Trollop?”
“No,” she seethed through clenched teeth slightly smeared with crimson lipstick. “You know very well I mean murdered,” she gritted out. “Your sister’s death was a tragic accident.”
Yes, she tragically accidentally tripped into a man’s fists several times over until she died, and then shetragically accidentally fell over a cliff. The whole damn village, including my parents, knew who that man was, but no one was brave enough to utter his name out loud… including me.
I lifted my veil, tucking it up on the brim to better survey the sallow pallor of her complexion underneath the layers of contouring makeup, but avoiding her glassy eyes trying to focus on me. “A bit early for Mother’s Little Helper, isn’t it, Mommy dearest?”
“It’s a shame you weren’t charming enough to keep a man like Enzo Cavalieri’s attention. Then it would be you moldering in the ground”—she pressed a wrinkled handkerchief to her nose— “instead of my beautiful Renata.”
After twenty-three years, knife strikes straight to the heart like that should have stopped hurting. They didn’t.
I inhaled deeply through my nose in a vain attempt to control my emotions before responding.
It didn’t work.
The corner of my mouth lifted in a smirk. “I’m sorry, Claudia. I don’t think he found Renata charming as much as he enjoyed my sister’s charms.”
Her eyes widened. With a huff, she opened her clutch and fumbled for her cigarette case. Tucking a cigarette in her mouth, she let it dangle from her obscenely red lips, vainly trying several times to spark her lighter. “How dare you say such things about your dead sister. And at her funeral!”
I yanked the lighter from her hands and lit the cigarette.
It annoyed me that she was right. It was in poor taste.
There was no love lost between me and Renata. A lifetime of her cruel behavior toward me, capped off by her ultimate betrayal, put an end to any sisterly affection I may at one time have foolishly harbored. But she was still family and I owed her at least that much respect.
I tossed the lighter back into my mother’s purse. “Why are we even here? That man”—I still couldn’t say his name— “killed her. Why did you and Father agree to let him and his family host the funeral? Talk about disrespecting Renata. How can you let him play the grieving husband like this?”
My mother blew a cloud of smoke in my face. “Shut your mouth. Someone will hear you.”
“Are you serious? Mother—”
I let out a frustrated sigh. “Claudia, the entire fucking—”
“Don’t curse. Only trollops curse.”
I looked heavenward and prayed for patience. Taking a deep breath, I started again, speaking slowly. “Claudia, the entire fu—the entire village is here gossiping about how he’s the one who probably killed Renata. Everyone knows it’s always the husband. Anyone who watches Dateline knows that.”
“What is Dateline?”
“It’s an American true crime show, but that’s not the point. The point is, he killed your daughter and you’re here fawning all over him like he’s the suffering son-in-law.”
She picked a nonexistent piece of tobacco off her lip before responding. It was a gesture she’d seen an Italian sex symbol do in an old black-and-white movie once. Everything about my mother was affectation. Same with my sister, or at least it had been the same with my sister.
“We never should have agreed to let you study in America. It has given you a smart mouth.” After an overly dramatic sigh, she continued. “Bianca, there are sensitive business matters at play here that don’t concern you.”
Translation—my parents’ greed couldn’t afford to make an enemy of the Cavalieri billions.
I lowered my veil to cover my face once again. “Well I, for one, want no part in this farce. I’m going home.”
I had only taken a few steps when I was wrenched back by my hair.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
I turned to face my furious father, Bruno Moretti. His bloated face was a mottled purple.
I pulled my long curls out of his grasp and lowered my voice as I responded. “Home.”
“The hell you are. You’re going to march up there and pay your respects to Don Cavalieri and offer your brother-in-law a groveling apology for your disgraceful behavior earlier. I have already told them it was a side effect of some tranquilizers an American doctor gave you to handle your grief over your sister’s tragic passing.”
I wrenched my veil back up to face him. “I will do no such thing.”
His beefy fist shot out and grabbed the collar of my dress. “Listen, you spoiled little bitch—”
Before I could respond, an iron band wrapped around my waist and pulled me backward against a solid wall of muscle, breaking my father’s hold.
A dark, commanding voice ground out, “Get your hands off her.”
I looked up past the brim of my hat to see Enzo Cavalieri’s cold, emerald eyes glaring down at me.