The Bride's Awakening - By Kate Hewitt

Chapter One

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 looks—or lack of them—did 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 good—to 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 red—he’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 winery—the region’s largest and most select—any 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 his—and 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,