No good came from attracting the attention of a man like Barone Cavalieri.
The prosecco flutes on my tray rattled as I caught sight of his glare.
The Barone Cavalieri, powerful patriarch of the Cavalieri family, was staring at me. No, not staring, glaring.
Shifting my gaze away, I tried to swallow past the dry fear which had turned my throat to dust. The flutes clattered again. I pressed my hand over their tops, stilling them. I inhaled a shaky breath and held it, trying to calm my racing heart. A piece of hair escaped my loose bun and tickled the side of my neck. I desperately wanted to flick it aside but was afraid to release my grip on my passing tray.
Despite it being late autumn, the sultry Italian sun would not release its hot grip on our little mountain valley in Abruzzo. A bead of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. I shrugged one shoulder, trying to relieve the icky, itching sensation on my skin. Then froze. Had my motion drawn more of his unwanted attention? I was afraid to look.
What had I done wrong to warrant his glare?
Internally, I rolled my eyes.
Dammit, why had I agreed to work this awful wedding?
Everyone in the village knew it was doomed from the start.
The answer was simple.
Money, of course.
Stupid, completely necessary for survival money.
I dared a glance out of the corner of my eye. Barone had turned away, his attention drawn by a handful of disreputable looking guests.
I let out the breath I was holding.
Maybe it had all been in my imagination?
After all, why on earth would Barone Cavalieri be glaring at me, one of the village catering servants, at his eldest son’s wedding? I mean sure, I had been friends with his youngest son at school, but that was years ago. It wasn’t like our families hung out in the same circles.
There were the rich as hell Cavalieris.
There was everyone else below them.
And at the very top was Barone Cavalieri.
The man was practically a legend in his own time.
Known as much for his kindness as his temper, he watched over our village like a feudal lord, harkening back to the power of his ancestors. I guessed it made sense, they even named our village after his family, who owned literally millions of acres of land across Italy and countless businesses, besides the ancestral winery that was the Cavalieri legacy.
It didn’t hurt that the man was also tall, imposing, and handsome as sin.
Still, with that kind of power and wealth, there was always an undercurrent of treachery and fear.
It was this that had me shivering in the afternoon sun.
I headed inside to get more prosecco.
Later, I would be expected to pass glasses of the famous, and insanely expensive, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano d’Abruzzo dei Cavalieri made from old vines dating back to the thirteenth century, but for now the guests were supposed to be drinking prosecco to celebrate the happy couple.
Except nobody wanted any.
Irritated, I pulled out the band holding my hair back, relieved when the tight tension eased.
My best friend approached, carrying a full tray of uneaten appetizers. She lifted one poached pear half filled with creamy ricotta and drizzled with local sideritis honey and took a bite. “These are really quite tasty. A total waste on that boring crowd out there,” she said after swallowing and licking her lips. “Have you ever seen a more somber and tense wedding? You’d think it was a funeral. Although it serves Enzo right for marrying such a bitc—”
I gestured with my head toward Signora Rossi, our supervisor who was standing nearby, as I whispered harshly through tightly closed teeth, “Milana!”
Milana’s eyes widened. She tossed her tray aside so haphazardly, the contents slid over the tray lip and toppled onto the Carrara marble table surface. She swallowed a laugh. “Oops.”
Milana used the flat of her hand to sweep the pear halves back onto the silver passing tray. The once elegant display was now a jumbled mess of overturned pears and smeared ricotta. She turned to face me, leaning her hip against the table. She licked a drop of honey off the tip of her finger as she raised one elegantly arched eyebrow. “You think the rumors are true?”
I finished wiping my tray and reached for several clean glasses. Distracted, I asked, “What rumors?” as I arranged the flutes on the tray.
“You know the rumors!” She leaned in close and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone whispered, “About the father and the scandal.”
I lifted the green glass bottle of prosecco and carefully poured one hundred and eighty milliliters in the first flute.
Warmth crept up my cheeks.
Barone Cavalieri’s late wife, the mother of his sons Enzo and Cesare, died under mysterious circumstances over fifteen years ago. It caused a huge scandal. The topic tore the I pettegolezzi del villaggio in different directions. Some said she killed herself because she was a religious woman and could no longer bear to satisfy her husband’s ungodly tastes in the bedroom. Others said he accidentally killed her in the middle of some rather vigorous, to put it mildly, lovemaking. Still others said he straight up murdered her.
The image of Barone’s tall, powerful body looming over me as his dark, piercing glare held me in thrall clashed with all the salacious stories I had heard about his sexual kinks and appetites over the years.
The flute I had been filling bubbled over with crisp, white foam as I overfilled the glass, toppling it. I stepped out of the way as fizzing prosecco covered the white marble tabletop and dripped onto the floor. “Che due palle!”
Milana helped me lift the flutes off the tray. “I, for one, don’t think he’s a murderer. I’m sure it was just rumors started by a bunch of jealous bitches who were angry, because they couldn’t tempt Barone and his legendary coc—”
“Milana!” I hissed again, furiously turning my head to make sure we weren’t being overheard. I swept the spilled prosecco into the nearby porcelain sink with a towel.
“—to their beds,” she finished in a rush before stuffing another pear in her mouth to stop herself from saying anything more.
I used the towel to cover my mouth as I laughed. “You’re a terrible influence.”
She laughed as she unabashedly talked around the appetizer in her mouth. “The worst.”
The sound of voices coming closer echoed down the carved stone corridor to our left.
Milana scurried to finish righting as many of the pear halves as she could. “We better hurry or Signora Rossi will have our heads for not doing our jobs.”
I splashed the bare minimum amount of prosecco in the flutes and lifted the tray. It wasn’t like it mattered, no one was interested in drinking it anyway.
I headed toward the stone corridor to the right, away from the incoming voices. The lower level of the villa was a labyrinth of narrow corridors and small, cave-like rooms radiating from the center of the vast catering kitchen reserved for special events, like spokes on a wheel.
As I neared an intersecting corridor, voices raised in anger reached me.
“I will not stand for it, Renata!”
I started. It was Enzo Cavalieri, the groom, yelling at his bride. Hissing air through my teeth, I covered my mouth and looked around, hoping they had not heard me.
Renata cackled in return. “There’s nothing you can do about it now, husband.”
I peeked around the corner and watched as Enzo snatched her around the upper arm and dragged her into one of the cave rooms. Its heavy oak door, hung with ancient wrought iron hinges, slammed shut behind them.
I tightened my grip on the tray as I was forced to walk past the door to get back outside, where I was supposed to be passing out drinks.
Even though I knew I shouldn’t… I couldn’t resist pausing just outside the door to see if I could hear anything more.
The thickness of the door muffled much of what they were saying, or technically, shouting.
“—if it’s even mine.”
“—ruin my name—”
I was so caught up in the drama, I didn’t hear the heavy footsteps behind me until it was too late.