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He should be in that coffin, and not his irrepressible best friend.
Giacomo Corretti stood in the shadow of the tall pine tree and watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground just a few feet away from where he was effectively hidden. The tight ball of ice firmly lodged in his gut was slowly spreading out to every extremity. He welcomed this even as he castigated himself for being a coward.
The small group of people around the coffin started to move, the priest's final words of blessing lingering on the warm spring air along with the pungent scent of incense. It shouldn't be warm, Gio suddenly realised, it shouldn't be spring. The sea shouldn't be twinkling benignly under a cerulean sky. He desperately wanted apocalyptic clouds to roll in off stormy waters, for everything to darken and for thunder and lightning to lash this place. To lash him to pieces.
He could hear the heartbreaking sound of Mario's mother sobbing as she leant on her aged husband. The sound cut him in two. Gio would never have merited this outpouring of grief. The realisation was stark but brought with it no sense of self-pity.
In contrast, beside them with a stoically straight back stood their tall and narrow-shouldered daughter, Valentina. Her long chestnut hair was tied back in a plait and on her head was a black scarf. The ill-fitting black jacket and skirt she wore hinted at the coltish seventeen-year-old body underneath.
She didn't have to look around for Gio to know every line on her face with instant recall. Pale olive skin as soft as a rose petal. The lush curve of her mouth and lips which more than hinted at a burgeoning womanly sensuality. She had the most extraordinarily coloured eyes, golden brown like amber.
He could picture them flashing now with mock anger and a little bit of very real anger and fear whenever she'd caught her beloved older brother and Gio flirting with the danger they had loved so much.
As if the intensity of his gaze and thoughts had touched her, Valentina Ferranti turned around and pinpointed the exact spot where Gio stood, those almond-shaped eyes narrowing on him.
It was too late, he couldn't run. She turned fully and looked at him for a long moment. She was pale and her beautiful face was puffy from crying. Her eyes were shadowed and grief-stricken in a way that no one should ever have to deal with before their time. He had done that to her. He had caused this irreparable damage.
His careless words came back to him from that night: 'Don't worry, I'll have him back to his books before midnight just like Cinderella....'
Valentina's desolation reached out to touch Gio and mock him. And then she was stalking towards him with long slim legs; her hands were curled to fists much like his, by her sides. Her face was contorted with the mad anger of grief.
She stopped just inches away. So close that he could smell her sweet fresh scent. It was incongruous in the midst of such misery.
'You are not welcome here, Corretti.' Her voice was rough and husky from crying and Gio's insides contracted so much he wondered how he stayed conscious when he couldn't breathe. But he was breathing and he marvelled at the human body's instinct to survive, no matter what.
He took a breath. 'I ' He stopped when the familiar tightening of his vocal chords warned of humiliation to come but he ignored it. 'I know.'
The fact that he hadn't stumbled over those completely ineffectual words came as small comfort. Mario, her brother and his friend, had been the one who had patiently helped Gio to overcome his chronic stutter which had lasted well into his early teens.
At twenty-two now, the sting of years of humiliation was still like a scar branding his skin. And yet in this moment, he longed to feel that humiliation again. So that he could be subjected to Valentina's cruel laugh and ridicule. Except she wouldn't do that, she had never done that. She'd always been sweet and shy, and when he had stuttered in front of her she'd never used it as a tool to hurt, as almost everyone else had. Especially his family.
Suddenly Valentina lashed out, taking him by surprise. Her small fist connected with Gio's chest with enough force to send him staggering backwards. Her voice throbbed with pain, 'He was everything to us and thanks to you he's gone. He was going to graduate from university next year and be a success, and you ?'
Valentina's voice was sneering now. 'What can you do for us now? Nothing. Get out of here, Corretti. You taint this place with your presence.'
Brokenly she added, 'If you hadn't encouraged him to go out that night' She stopped and bit her lip fiercely.
The blood drained from Gio's face completely. 'I'm sorry so sorry,' he said faintly.
Valentina gathered herself once more, eyes dead. 'It's your fault. I hate you, CorrettiI'll hate you for ever because you're alive and he's not.'
Her words fell like splinters of glass all over Gio's skin. She was looking at him now as if she would push him all the way off the nearby cliff and happily watch him crash to pieces on the rocks below.
'Come, Valentina, it's time to go.'
They were both startled from the dark taut energy surrounding them when Valentina's father materialised to take her arm. His voice was thin and weary. 'This is not the time or place.'
Valentina seemed to crumple visibly and without looking at Gio again she allowed her father to turn her and lead her away. After a couple of metres though Mario's father stopped. He looked back to Gio with impossibly mournful eyes and just shook his head sadly. The man had aged ten years in the space of just a few days. It was worse than if he'd spat at Gio's feet or even punched him as Valentina had.
The truth was starkif Gio hadn't had the unlikeliest of friendships with Mario in the first place, if he hadn't cajoled and pleaded with him to come out that night, this never would have happened.
In that moment Gio wanted to die more than anything else in the world. So badly he could taste it. Everything and anyone he'd ever loved was gone now. For ever. Everything good and promising and hopeful was broken and destroyed.
But, he knew with a bitter taste in his mouth that suicide would be too easy. Far easier than living with this pain every day. Living with the pain of knowing he had decimated an entire family and reduced them to this aching loss. This was his inheritance and he would live with it for the rest of his life.
Seven years later
It was the wedding of the decade. Two of the most powerful families in Sicily uniting in holy matrimony. Valentina's mouth thinned into a cynical line. Except everyone knew it wasn't a love match between Alessandro Corretti and Alessia Battaglia. It was a bid for the ultimate power play, a way for the Corretti family to go on undefeated into the future for generations to come. If merging with their one-time bitter rivals was what it took, then so be it.
Valentina stopped what she was doing for a moment and put a hand to her chest. Even just thinking of the name Corretti made her feel slightly bilious. Not to mention the fact that she was at this very moment working at their behest.
Much as she would have loved to have been able to tell Carmela Correttithe mother of the groomwhere she could shove her job offer, Valentina didn't have that luxury. She was the owner of a tiny struggling catering company and she'd sweated blood and tears to start it up and try to keep it afloat with her minimal staff. It was the only thing supporting her aged and ailing parents.
Carmela had a reputation, despite the vast Corretti wealth, of being very tight with money, and Valentina knew that part of the reason she'd been lucky enough to get the job had been due to her very reasonable prices. Read: ridiculously cheap. But it was the kudos of being hired for something as exclusive as this that would count in the long run, and the payment, in spite of not charging as much as her competitors.
As Valentina put the finishing touches to some beluga caviar canapes she couldn't help recalling Carmela's overly made-up and expressionless face when she'd looked down her patrician nose at Valentina a few weeks previously. 'This has to be the most sophisticated event of the decadethe budget for the food itself will of course be limitless. If you mess this up, Ms Ferranti, you do know you won't ever work on this island again, don't you?'
Valentina had struggled not to look as panic-stricken as she'd felt. The very prospect of having to go to the mainland and leave her parents behind was not an option. Carmela was right though; if Valentina failed at this she would be lucky to get work as a part-time waitress in a pizza joint in Naples.
So she'd stifled the panic and said meekly, 'Of course, Mrs Corretti, I know how important this is.'
And now she and her staff were being paid a pittance to create the most expensive caviar hors d'oeuvres in the world. Carmela had presided over a tasting of the sample menu Valentina had devised and that hour had been the most nerve-racking of Valentina's career so far. And then she'd approved the menu with a mere dismissive flick of her impeccably manicured hand. Valentina had stood there in shock for a long moment before the older woman had spat out, 'Well? What are you waiting for? You have work to do.'
On being given the go-ahead, regal salmon caviar had been flown all the way from Scotland, along with smoked salmon. The beef for the main luncheon had come from Ireland. The beluga caviar had naturally come straight from Russia. The champagne reserved for the head table alone was from the year 1907, salvaged from an infamous shipwreck, its price too astronomical for Valentina to get her head around. The rest of the champagne was merely Bollinger.
No, money was no object when making sure people saw and tasted the Corretti wealth, they just didn't mind scrimping on the labour behind it.
Valentina blew an errant hair out of her hot face and stood back. Her own two personal staff came by her side and Franco said in awestruck tones at the array of trays of hors d'oeuvres, 'They're like works of art. Val, you've outdone yourself this time.'
Valentina smiled ruefully. 'As much as we need to create the effect, we want them to be eaten.'
She had to admit then that the regal salmon caviar with its distinctive orange colour, wrapped in smoked salmon and in a toasted bread cup, did look enticing. Her stomach rumbled and she looked up at the clock and let out a squeak, tearing off her apron as she did. She fired off commands as she looked for her suit bag which contained her uniform for the day. 'Franco, make sure the chefs are on schedule for the main meal, and, Sara, make sure the serving staff are dressed and ready to take these trays up. We should take the rest of the canapes out of the fridges now. And get Tomasso to check that all the champagne bottles are in the ice buckets upstairstell him to replace the frozen rose ice if it's melting.'
Valentina left her staff buzzing around following instructions. Thankfully as the reception was being held in the sumptuous flagship Corretti Hotelwhich was right across a verdant square from the beautiful medieval basilica where the wedding was being celebratedshe had full access to their facilities, house chefs and staff. The eponymous restaurant here was Michelin-starred, so she couldn't have asked for more. She merely had to oversee everything but was ultimately responsible for the entire menu.
Valentina found the changing area and struggled out of her jeans and T-shirt and changed into her one smart black suit and white shirt. She surmised grimly that Car-mela was far too canny to have things go wrong in the Corretti name. Far better to be able to blame an outside caterer. Valentina told herself that it was still the opportunity of a lifetime and all she had to do was make sure nothing went wrong. Simple!
After a couple of minutes she stood in her stocking feet and looked at herself in the mirror. She made a face at her flushed cheeks and the shadows under her eyes and scrabbled for her make-up bag, hands trembling from the excess adrenalin as she did her best to counteract the ravages of several sleepless nights.
She'd had nightmares of people choking on a canape, or epidemic levels of food poisoning after the wedding lunch. The thought of felling the entire Corretti and Battaglia clans was enough to make her an insomniac for years to come! Grimacing at her far too vivid imagination, Valen-tina wound up her hair into a high bun at the back of her head and gave herself a quick cursory once-over. No jewellery, minimal make-up. All designed to fade as much into the background as possible. Then she gathered up her things and slipped on a pair of mid-height black court shoes.
It was only as she walking back out to the preparation area that the rogue thought slipped into her mind like a sly traitor waiting in the wings. What if he's here? He won't be, Valentina assured herself with something bordering uncomfortably on panic. Why would he be here when it was common knowledge he'd left home at sixteen and become completely independent of his family? The fact that he'd since carved out a stupendously successful career breeding and training thoroughbred horses had served to further that estrangement from his own family business and legacy.
He won't be here, Valentina assured herself again. Because if he was Her mind froze as a yawning chasm of grief and pain and anger washed through her, along with something much more disturbing and hard to define.
He wouldn't be. He couldn't be. She was far too vulnerable today to deal with seeing Giacomo Corretti.
If there was any mercy in this world, Valentina told herself fervently, he would be kept away by the sheer psychic force of her anger and hatred. And yet, her heart beat a little faster as she went about her business.
Gio put his fingers between his bow-tied shirt and neck, trying in vain to ease the constriction he felt. He gave up with a muffled curse, leaving his white bow tie slightly askew. The problem was that the constriction was in his chest, and had nothing to do with his tie. He cursed again and wished he was on the other side of the island in his habitual uniform of T-shirt, jeans and boots, with his horses.
He could see people milling about outside the hotel and in the lush landscaped square that was between the huge imposing church and the Corretti Hotel. Clearly the wedding had ended but the luncheon hadn't started yet.
Damn. He'd almost hoped he'd be too late entirely. The only reason he'd come at all had been because his mother had pleaded with him. 'Gio, you never see your brothers, or anyone else. You can't go on isolating yourself like this. Please come.'
He'd had to bite back the frustrationthe urge to lash out and say something like, Why the hell should I? But he hadn't, he'd been immediately disgusted by his own pathetic self-pity and his relationship with his mother was tenuous at the best of times.