“I know you will, but I want you to hear me out and think it over.” Richard reached out and tapped my hand. “I won’t hold it against you if you decide not to agree with it. I would completely understand, so don’t even go there.” He drew a labored breath, as though he was desperately trying to sort his thoughts out before handing it over into my hands. “I need you to marry Stella. I know you’re in love with Zara, but I can’t leave this earth knowing my baby sister is unprotected from vultures that will take advantage of her. You’re the only man I know that fits the bill. On top of that, I trust you completely. In your hands, my sister is safe. I can die happy knowing that, Cal.”

Stella, the young, shy, brunette who couldn’t even look me straight in the eye the last time I met her? Well, it was the only time I had met her, I suppose. Marriage. It was meant for the woman I loved, but now that my father had swept in and taken that away from me, there was no one left that I could imagine spending my life with. Besides, I would shoot myself before I would decline Richard’s request.

It was unfathomable to even consider turning back on him.

“Then, I’ll marry Stella. There’s nothing holding me back from helping you get what you wish, Richard.” I paused, nodding towards his somber form. I truly was devastated. Although I was doing a splendid job of not shedding a tear or going into a raging outburst, inside I was barely holding up. Maybe I was still reeling from the lethal heartbreak Zara had dealt me, or maybe life had f**ked me quite well so many times before that I felt the need to be composed. Whatever the reason, I held it together and managed to convey my thoughts to my friend. He needed to know that he could trust me with Stella. “I’ll marry her until she’s of age to marry a decent man. I can promise you that I will make sure she is well provided for; her assets secured and safe from men who are after her money.”

Richard had already outlined everything, right down to having his lawyer draft up the agreements before I had gotten there. I was going to marry and be her conservator at the same time. She couldn’t divorce me until she was at the age of twenty-six. I was also provided with all the to-do lists once Stella had chosen someone to marry. He had everything prepared. Now all he needed to do was tell his sister about this arrangement. Richard promised to tell her during teatime and I would meet her for dinner tonight to discuss what was to happen; amongst other things.

* C *

Dinnertime was set for seven tonight, though by five-thirty, I was restless and needed to clear my head from recent events; so I decided to leave the villa and slowly stroll towards the shore. The more my life went on, more disaster unfolded before my very eyes. It was beginning to look like a Greek Tragedy.

My father. Zara. Their wedding. Richard dying. This impending arrangement with Stella…

Without a doubt, my father’s betrayal was deplorable, yet somehow, deep down, I had sort of expected this due to knowing how controlling he was by nature as well as how emotionless he could be. Richard’s illness and the knowledge of him biding time until death finally made its last call, on the other hand, was killing me. However, Zara’s treachery went far and beyond everything else that had been put before me. Her unfaithfulness eviscerated me completely.

It was a lot to take, but it was what life had handed me.

I was losing people that were important in my life. They weren’t merely fixtures like my father, Zara and Richard were people that I considered my best friends, my family; those who were going to be there beside me through thick and thin.

Losing Zara to my own father had been quite enough; why must I also lose my best friend to cancer? I wanted to scream that he was too young to die, however it didn’t matter if you were young, fit and healthy. Cancer wasn’t picky. Once it staked a claim on you, you’d be fighting for dear life and, most likely, not just once; it would be a battle for the rest of your existence. Some got lucky and survived.

I barely made it back in time for dinner. Since I was too absorbed with my own misery, I hadn’t bothered to change for the occasion. My rugged attire would have to suffice.

Rounding to enter the dining area, I was momentarily struck the second I entered the room where I was met by still, clear, grey eyes with gold flecks; a long, wavy brunette mane; delicate facial features and the longest lashes I had ever seen.

Stella von Berg definitely had grown into a lovely woman. Well, lovely was putting it mildly.

Automatically, I strolled to her side, expecting an even greater attraction from her in close proximity. I was not disappointed, she was even more lovely this close.

“Good evening,” I murmured, slowly inhaling her perfumed scent as I kissed both of her cheeks. The scent was sultry yet not too intoxicating, simply enough subtle, sexiness to evoke the male senses.

“Callum, it’s lovely to see you again.”

Her voice was husky… definitely not the sixteen-year-old I remembered. This Stella was beyond mildly captivating. She paused while I cussed at myself inwardly. What was wrong with me? Richard was dying and here I was thinking about his sister’s scent and how husky her voice was? For f**k’s sake, I needed to get my head checked.

When dinner was served, I contemplated if I should bring up the subject now, or after whilst having a nightcap. I decided that it would benefit us both if we were in the salon. It was a serious matter to discuss and not some inessential subject that could be easily thrown about during lamb chops and veal.

“What are your plans for the future, Stella? Career wise.”

Stella carefully chewed her food before washing it down with a sip of her Sauvignon Blanc then delicately dabbed the sides of her mouth with the silk napkin. “My best friend, Lucia, and I are thinking of setting up our own PR firm. She and I are enrolled for a two-year course in London before we venture out in that area. It’s a competitive field, obviously; so even with the right amount of knowledge and wisdom, we both understand experience is vital in understanding the ins and outs of running a real firm.”

Impressive, she truly was. Most women with the likes of her pedigree were usually twits that cared about social stature and the bank account. Women who were born in wealth were usually groomed to marry a wealthier man and it was a given that one should know how to run a household. For example, which silver and china should be used to a certain party or how to mask things with fake smiles. This woman, who was sharing a meal with me, was the genuine kind. What did I truly expect? She was Richard’s sister, brought up levelheaded by both loving parents; one of the many things I had always envied about Richard.

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