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Vittorio Ralfino, the Count of Cazlevara, stood on the threshold of San Stefano Castle and searched the milling guests for the woman he intended to be his wife. He wasn't certain what she looked like for, beyond a single small photo, he hadn't seen her in sixteen years. Or if he had seen her, she hadn't made much of an impression. Now he planned to marry her.
Anamaria Viale wasn't readily apparent amidst the tuxedo and evening gown-clad crowd circulating through the candlelit foyer. All he remembered from when he'd seen her at her mother's funeral was a sad, sallow face and too much dark hair. She'd been thirteen years old. The photo in the magazine gave little more information; she had good teeth. Still, her looksor lack of themdid not interest Vittorio. Anamaria Viale possessed the qualities he was looking for in a wife: loyalty, health and a shared love of this land and its grapes. Her family's vineyard would be an asset to his own; together they would rule an empire and create a dynasty. Nothing else mattered.
Impatiently, he strode into the castle's medieval hall. Shadows danced along the stone walls and he felt the curious stares of neighbours, acquaintances and a few friends. He heard the murmur of speculative whispers travel around the ancient hall in a ripple of suppressed sound and knew he was their subject. He hadn't been back in Veneto for more than a day or two at a time in the last fifteen years. He'd kept away from the place and its memories and regrets. Like a hurt little boy, he'd run away from his past and pain, but he was a man now and he was home for goodto find a wife.
'Cazlevara!' Someone clapped him on the back, thrusting a glass of wine into his hand. His fingers closed around the fragile stem as a matter of instinct and he inhaled the spicy, fruity scent of a bold red. 'You must try this. It's Busato's new redhe's blended his grapes, Vinifera and Molinara. What do you think?'
Vittorio took a practised sip, swilling the rich liquid in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. 'Good enough,' he pronounced, not wanting to get into a detailed discussion about the merits of mixed grapes, or whether Busato, one of the region's smaller winemakers, was going to give Castle Cazlevara, his own winerythe region's largest and most selectany competition. He wanted to find Anamaria.
'I heard the rumours. You're home then? You're going to make some wine?'
Vittorio glanced at the man who had been speaking to him: Paolo Prefavera, a colleague of his father's. His round cheeks were already rosy with drink and he smiled with the genial bonhomie of an old family friend, although his eyes were shrewd.
'I've always been making wine, Paolo. Castle Cazlevara produces nine hundred thousand bottles a year.'
'While you've been touring the world'
'It's called marketing.' Vittorio realized he was speaking through his teeth. He smiled. 'But yes, I'm home for good.' Home, so he could rein his grasping brother Bernardo back in, before he squandered the rest of the winery's profits. Home, so he could keep his treacherous mother from taking what was hisand his heir's. At this thought, his forced smile turned genuine, even though his eyes remained hard. 'Have you seen Anamaria Viale?' Paolo's eyebrows rose and Vittorio stifled a curse. He was too impatient; he knew that. When he made a decision, he wanted it carried out immediately, instantly. He'd decided to marry Anamaria Viale nearly a week ago; it felt like an eternity. He wanted it done; he wanted her vineyard joined to his, he wanted her joined to him, in his bed, by his side, being a wife.
Paolo smiled slyly and Vittorio forced himself to smile back. Now there would be whispers, rumours. Gossip. 'I have a question to ask her,' he explained with a shrug, as if it were no matter.
'She was over by the fireplace, last time I saw her.' Paolo gave a small chuckle, more of a guffaw. 'How could you miss her?'
Vittorio didn't understand what Paolo meant until he neared the huge stone fireplace. An alarmingly large stuffed boar's head was mounted above the hearth and a few men were gathered underneath, sipping wine and chatting quietly. At least he thought they were all men. Narrowing his eyes, he realized the tall, strong figure in the centre of the group was actually a woman. Anamaria.
His mouth tightened as he took in his intended wife, dressed in an expensive-looking but essentially shapeless trouser suit. Her long dark hair was held back in a clip and looked as thick and coarse as a horse's tail. She held a glass of wine as most of the castle's guests did; the evening was, after all, a wine-tasting for the province's premier winemakers and guests. She had, Vittorio saw, strong, even features; pretty was not necessarily a word he would use to describe them. There was something too earthy and bold about her, he decided. He preferred the women he took to his bed to be more delicate, fragile even. Slim.
Not, he amended, that Anamaria Viale was overweight. Not at all. Big-boned was the word he might have chosen, although his mother would have sneered and called her grassa. Fat.
Vittorio's mouth thinned at the thought of his mother. He could hardly wait to see the look on the old bitch's face when he told her he was getting married. Bernardo, her precious favourite, fool that he was, would never inherit. Her plans the plans she'd cherished since the moment his father's will had been readwould come to nothing.
Vittorio smiled at the thought, little more than a bitter twisting of his mouth, and dismissed his bride's looks as a matter of no importance. He didn't want a beautiful woman; beautiful women, like his mother and his last mistress, were never satisfied, always finding fault. He'd left his mistress in Rio pouting for more time, money, even love. He'd told her he would never set eyes on her again.
Anamaria, he was sure, would take what she was given and be grateful, which was exactly what he wanted. A wifea humble, grateful wifethe most important accessory a man could ever possess.
Surveying her tall, strong form, Vittorio was quite sure a woman like her was unused to male attention; he anticipated her stammering, blushing pleasure when the Count of Cazlevara singled her out.
He stepped forward, straightening his shoulders, and adopted an easy-going, self-assured smile whose devastating effect he knew well.
'Anamaria.' His voice came out in a low, suggestive hum.
She turned, stiffening in surprise when she saw him. Her eyes widened and a smile dawned on her face, a fragile, tremulous gesture of joy, brightening her whole countenance for the barest of moments. Vittorio smiled back; he almost laughed aloud. This was going to be so easy.
Then she drew herself upher height making Vittorio appreciate Paulo's comment once moreand raked him with one infuriatingly dismissive glance, that amazed smile turning cool and evencould it be?contemptuous. He was still registering the change in her expression and moodhis smug satisfaction giving way to an uneasy alarmwhen she spoke.
'Hello, Lord Cazlevara.' Her voice was low, husky. Almost, Vittorio thought with a flicker of distaste, like a man's. Although, he noted, there was nothing particularly unpleasing about her features: straight brows and nose, dark grey eyes, the good teeth he'd noticed before. She was not, at least, ugly; rather, she was exceedingly plain. He let his smile deepen to show the dimple in his cheek, determined to win this plain spinster over. A woman like Anamaria would surely appreciate any charm thrown her way.
'Let me be the first to say how lovely you look tonight.'
She raised her eyebrows, the flicker of that cool smile curling her mouth and glinting in her eyes. They had, he saw, gold flecks that made them seem to shimmer. 'You will indeed be the first to say so.'
It took Vittorio a moment to register the mockery; he couldn't believe she was actually making fun of himas well as of herself. Feeling slightly wrong-footedand unused to itVittorio reached for her hand, intending to raise it to his lips even as he cursed the way he'd phrased his flattery. For flattery it was indeed, and she knew it. She was not stupid, which he supposed was a good thing. She let his lips brush her skin, something darkening her eyesthose gold flecks becoming moltenbefore she quite deliberately pulled her hand away.
The crowd around them had fallen back, yet Vittorio was conscious of avid stares, intent ears and, even more so, his own mounting annoyance. This first meeting was not going the way he'd anticipatedwith him firmly in control.
'To what do I owe such a pleasure?' Anamaria asked. 'I don't believe we've seen each other in well over a decade.' Her voice caught a little, surprising him. He wondered what she was thinking of, or perhaps remembering.
'I'm simply glad to be back home,' Vittorio replied, keeping his voice pitched low and smooth, 'among beautiful women.'
She snorted. She actually snorted. Vittorio revised his opinion; the woman was not like a man, but a horse. 'You have learned honeyed words on your trips abroad,' she said shortly. 'They are far too sweet.' And, with a faintly mocking smile, she turned and walked away from him as if he were of no importance at all. She left him.
Vittorio stood there in soundless shock, his fury rising. He'd been summarily dismissed, and he, along with the little knot of spectators around him, was conscious of it. He felt the stares, saw a few smug smiles, and knew he'd been put properly in his place, as if he were a naughty schoolboy being disciplined by a mocking schoolmarm. It was a feeling he remembered from childhood, and he did not like it.
Standing there, Vittorio could not escape the glaringly and embarrassinglyobvious conclusion: as far as opening gambits went, his had been an utter failure.
He'd been planning to ask her to marry him, if not tonight, then certainly in the next few days. When he decided a thingeven to marryhe wanted it done. Completed. Over. He had no time or patience for finer emotions, and frankly he'd considered the wooing of such a woman to be an easy exercise, a mere dispensing of charm, a few carefully chosen compliments.
After reading the article about herand seeing her photo he'd assumed she would be grateful for whatever attention she received. She was unmarried and nearing thirty; his proposal would be, he'd thought, a gift. Maybe even a miracle.
Perhaps he had been arrogant, or at least hasty. The wooing and winning of Anamaria Viale would take a little more thought.
Vittorio smiled. He liked challenges. Admittedly, time was of the essence; he was thirty-seven and he needed a wife. An heir. Yet surely he had a weekor twoto entice Anamaria into marriage? He wasn't interested in making the woman fall in love with him, far from it. He simply wanted her to accept what was a very basic business proposition. She was the candidate he'd chosen, the most suitable one he could find, and he wasn't interested in any others. Anamaria Viale would be his.
Still, Vittorio realized, he'd acted like a fool. He was annoyed with himself for thinking a womanany woman could be charmed so thoughtlessly. It was a tactical error, and one he would not make again. The next time he met Anamaria Viale, she would smile at him because she couldn't help herself; she would hang on his every word. The next time he met her, it would be on his terms.
Anamaria made sure she didn't look back as she walked away from the Count of Cazlevara. Arrogant ass. Why on earth had he approached her? Although they were virtually neighbours, she hadn't seen him in at least a decade. He hadn't had more than two words for her in the handful of times she had seen him, and yet now he'd expressly sought her out at tonight's tasting, had looked for her and given her those ridiculous compliments.
Beautiful women. She was not one of them, and she knew it. She never would be. She'd been told enough. She was too tall, too big-boned, too mannish. Her voice was too loud, her hands and feet too big; everything about her was awkward and unappealing to men like Vittorio, who had models and starlets and bored socialites on his arm. She'd seen the photos in the tabloids, although she pretended not to know. Not even to look. She did, on occasion anyway, because she was curious. And not just curious, but jealous, if she were honest with herself, which Anamaria always tried to be. She was jealous of those tiny, silly slips of womenwomen she'd gone to school with, women who had no use for herwho could wear the skimpy and sultry clothes she never could, who revelled in their own femininity while she plodded along, clumsy and cloddish. And Vittorio knew it. In the split second before she'd spoken, she'd seen the look in his eyes. Disdain, verging on disgust.
She knew that look; she'd seen it in Roberto's eyes when she'd tried to make him love her. Desire her. He hadn't. She'd seen it in other men's eyes as well; she was not what men thought ofor liked to think ofwhen they considered a woman. A pretty woman, a desirable one.
She'd become used to it, armoured herself with trouser suits and a practical, no-nonsense attitude, the best weapons a woman like her could have. Yet tonight, from Vittorio stupidlythat look of disdain had hurt. She'd been so glad to see him, for that split second. Stupidly glad. She'd actually thought he'd remembered
Why on earth had he approached her with that asinine flattery? Had he been attempting some sort of misguided chivalry, or worse, had he been mocking her? And why had he sought her out so directly in the first place?
He was the Count of Cazlevarahe could have any woman he wantedand yet he'd entered the party and made straight for her. She only knew that because she'd seen him enter the castle, and felt her heart skip and then completely turn over. Even from afar, he was magnificent; well over six feet, he walked with a lithe grace, his suit of navy silk worn with careless elegance. His eyesas black as polished onyxhad narrowed and his assessing gaze had swept the hall as if he were looking for someone.
That was all she'd seen before she'd been pulled into another conversation, and now Anamaria wondered if he'd actually been looking for her.
Stupid. Fanciful. Wishful thinking, even. Vittorio could have anyone he wanted. Why on earth would he bother with her for a moment?
And yet, for some reason, he had.
Anamaria's cheeks burned and she took a hasty sip of wine, barely tasting the superb vintageshe was, ironically, drinking one of Cazlevara's own.