I was all set to give this book a A- or at the very least, a B+, I liked the beginning so much. It is always a cause for celebration in all my years of reading Harlequin Presents whenever I come across a heroine I like a lot more than I like the hero. It’s sad, but true. It’s seldom I find an HP heroine who can dish out as good as she got and doesn’t cower before the hero, awed by his gorgeous magnificence. Oh, gurrrl, please. Heck, this time, I almost didn’t want the heroine to end up with the hero. Not because I was jealous and wanted him for myself or anything, but because he was such a disrespectful dickbag to her for 70% of the book, becomes nice to her only when he’s proven wrong, then reverts to said dickbag behavior the last twenty pages of the book because he’s a scared, stupid little boy who thinks other people are always out to get him because no one paid attention to him or gave him a hug when he was a kid. IMHO, he doesn’t deserve her. Fortunately, our heroine Kathryn gives as good as she gets, stands her ground, and makes the reading of this novel worthwhile even when Luca Castelli is acting like a spoiled brat and is at the pinnacle of his douchebaggery. I just wished Kathryn gave him a couple of good kicks right square in the nuts whenever he threw a hissy fit. That would have set him right.
Your Heroine: At first glance, Kathryn might seem like a run-of-the-mill, self-sacrificing virgin out to martyr herself for the greater good. Sure, one of her motives for marrying Luca’s father is to have the means to give her disabled, arthritic mother a stable home and much needed home-care. She also did it to please her mother: unable to advance on her own due to her self-perceived lack of smarts, Kathryn thought it was time to use her good looks to help herself advance in the business world. She thought she was just trying to fulfill her mother’s dream for her because her mother worked very hard and sacrificed her own chance of happiness to be able to give Kathryn the chance she herself was denied; which, of course, she never failed to remind Kathryn every day of her life. Her mother had been a successful investment banker, but Kathryn got through her business degree by the skin of her teeth, so the MBA program for her is sheer torture. She studied hard all hours, forsaking dating or any kind of social life at all for that matter, but she still struggled like a fish on a hook.
Meeting Luca’s father was a blessing; he owned a successful, internationally-renowned winery (or whinery, if Luca were in charge). All the old man needed was companionship, nothing more; if Kathryn were to stay with him for two years— maybe less, since he’s dying—it would ensure Kathryn an important, executive spot in an international company. Her mother tells her to look upon it as an internship. Kathryn agrees, if only to get away from her termagant mother.
But Kathryn does not receive the warmest reception in Italy. The servants are cold to her, her husband’s eldest son Rafael politely ignores her and is ambivalent toward her at best, but the younger son, Luca, is openly hostile to her face and there is something beneath his anger that makes Kathryn superbly uncomfortable. It’s a little more than disdain or disgust at his father marrying for the sixth time a woman a third of his age. Kathryn can’t figure it out, but whenever Luca looks at her, her skin suddenly feels like it’s two sizes too small.
When her husband dies, everything comes to a head. His will dictates that she must have a position in the company, but Kathryn is quick to point out that she doesn’t want a useless, figurehead position; she wants to learn everything about the business. Luca and Rafael think it’s merely a ploy on her part to get a bigger stake in the company, so they offer her a generous lump sum to go away and disappear forever. It’s a tempting offer, since nobody seems to want her around, but she sticks to her guns and tells them she wants to work. She doesn’t want to work with Rafael, who is the CEO and does all the boring stuff like running the company, keeping it going, making sure people are getting paid… She chooses to work with Luca, who is the creative arm of the company, and takes care of stuff like marketing, publicity, schmoozing with society and business folk, and pretending to be a cool, bon vivant playboy who gives zero fucks about the serious things in life (when he is really a ruthless shark, you guys).
Daddy Castelli isn’t even cold in his grave when Luca begins assaulting her in the study, calling her a variety of names that all rhyme with “old digger” and “bore” and when that doesn’t ruffle her feathers any, decides to manhandle her person by shoving his tongue down her throat and his hand down the front of her dress. What a charmer. To her own surprise and perhaps consternation, Kathryn responds enthusiastically and with passion until Luca realizes he’s kissing the most evil hooor who ever lived and shoves her away again. Kathryn openly asks him, “Why do you hate me?” And he’s all, “Coz you’re a whore, just like the others. Shut up. I don’t like talking to you” before he stomps away, slamming the door after him. Kathryn, I assume, has a look on her face at this point that says, “Okay… that guy is nuts… but he sure can kiss.”
But Kathryn remains solid and untouchable, even through Luca’s many attempts to humiliate and mortify her. At work, Luca basically paints a target on her back by destroying a merit-based promotion process that the employees have held to and respected for many years by making Kathryn his new executive assistant instead of promoting someone from within the ranks. As if that’s not enough, he more or less orders his staff to treat her like garbage. He’s hoping she won’t last the week, take the lump sum they offered her, and go away. But Kathryn wants what Daddy Castelli promised her and she’s gonna get it. Like a boss, she grits her teeth, bears down, and does what needs to be done until Luca notices that she’s actually the best executive assistant he’s ever had. But does that change his opinion about her? Of course not. He ramps up the abuse and thinks to himself that a whore is a whore even if she is a brilliant secretary. Plus she’s a bad person who possibly drowns puppies for fun.
Your Hero: Luca is… a hard man to understand. Or tolerate. He has some good points and I can mostly understand why he is the way he is, but he’s just so damned stubborn and thick-headed that he makes you want to shake him like a rattle and scream in his face. He believes his mother killed herself from the heartbreak of losing his father and his father treats women like Pokemon: gotta catch ‘em all. When he was child, he was starved for attention so he acted up and threw tantrums until one of his well-meaning stepmoms pulled him aside and told him to stop being acting like a little bitch because in this world, you gotta look out for Number One coz ain’t nobody else gonna do it for you. Luca takes this advice to heart and develops an “I give less than zero fucks” persona of the ne’er-do-well younger brother who only cares about himself and the next target for a notch on his bedpost. But as it turns out, his act is actually a part of the Castelli business model because he’s really good at hobnobbing, schmoozing, and making contacts at parties, so the company reaps the benefits of his magnificent Italian charisma. Thus he becomes Luca Castelli, International Playboy, tabloid darling, and Giver of Zero Fucks.
And then he meets his father’s new wife and completely loses his shit. It was actually a pretty vivid, evocative scene. Daddy Castelli announces he’s brought a new bride home and summons his sons over for a meet-and-greet. Luca prepares himself say hello and immediately dismiss the nineteen-year-old child bride his father must have surely brought home, but he is almost brought down to his knees at his very first sight of Kathryn and all he could think of was “Not her, not her, not her.” At that moment, he becomes completely and totally obsessed with her, but convinces himself that she is just another one of his father’s whores, out to fleece the old man for his money. He teaches himself to hate her, to seek ulterior motives behind her every action, to be suspicious of every word that comes out of her luscious, beautiful mouth. There is just no way she is as innocent as she looks—hell, the tabloids have taken to calling her “Saint Kate.” No woman would marry a man three times her age out of the goodness of her heart. The gold-digging ho wants as much as she can get and there’s no chance in hell she’d be able to convince him otherwise. He will not nor will he ever condescend himself to go after his own father’s leavings.
Oh, but one of Luca’s redeeming qualities? Lover-boy is generous and not stingy about going downtown.
Preach it, Girlfriend: “Whorish behavior always adds up to two whores, Luca. Not one dirty whore and an innocent with dirty hands by accident, almost but not quite corrupted by doing the exact same thing. No matter what lies you tell yourself.”
Oh My Word: I was 80% finished with this book (and thus far, enjoying the hell out of it) when it occurred to me—hold up, wait a minute: he only comes to believe that she’s not a lying, cheating ho or the most evil skank in the universe because her vagina is still vacuum-sealed and has never been opened? What kind of fuckery is this? It certainly brings a whole new level to the virgin/whore dichotomy: I couldn’t love you because I thought you were a skank, but now that I’ve discovered you’re pure and thus, good, you are worthy of my love and I will treat you like a precious thing from now on. Which brings me to another wrinkle in the storyline that really irked me. Once Luca decides she is an object worthy of being cherished, he begins to refer to her as “cucciola mia” which means “my pet” (or “my puppy”). When Kathryn demurs on the nickname, he says, “I don’t think you have much choice in the matter” (or something to that effect). Dude!
But the biggest thing that made me want to reach in and yank Kathryn out of the book for her own protection was this: when she confesses to him the BIG MAJOR THING that freaks him the hell out and makes him lose his mind (again), he reverts to complete dickbag behavior and accuses her AGAIN of being a manipulative, scheming whore. In her defense, Kathryn says YOU DUMBASS, I WAS A VIRGIN. YOU WERE THERE. WHAT THE HELL. No amount of logic could knock the wind out of Luca’s outraged sails, however, and he retorts: Oh yeah? What kind of woman would hold on tightly to her virginity for her twenty-five years only to lose it in the backseat of a car to a guy she can barely even stand? Seriously, I was surprised Kathryn didn’t gut-punch him right then and there and left him for the ants. HE SLUT-SHAMES HER when he is the one who devirginized her? Oh, Lordy, I need my smelling salts. Never mind the salts, give me vodka.
Oh and for you fans of groveling out there: there’s like, maybe, an eighth of an ounce of it. He doesn’t beg for her forgiveness, doesn’t throw himself at her feet even though he was absolutely abominable to her for 70% of the book and only becomes nice to her because she has a hymen. What he does do is throw himself a pity party, so that Kathryn is basically manipulated into forgiving him. Luca, you wily piece of shit. The only thing that comforts me about the HEA is that throughout the book, Kathryn shows signs of having a backbone made of some hard stuff and that she knows exactly how to fight back. While I think Luca should be locked up in a dog crate for a week and fed only dog food to see how he likes being “my pet,” I think Kathryn could probably handle the guy just fine.
The previous book of this series is about the older brother, Rafael, who is in love with a former step-sister and searches the world to find her. Schyeah, I’m going to read it. Man, these Castelli dudes sure like to keep it in the family!