The following is an excerpt from Casalvento, by Gudrun Cuillo, available now from Greenleaf Book Group.
Erika Germoglio liked to think of herself as a self-made woman, and anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree. Business was what she did best. She was proud of what she’d become — a high-powered professional specializing in turning distressed companies around, climbing the upper echelons of New York’s social scene with her equally successful fiancé, Craig Bernhardt, a well-known real estate lawyer. Erika shared a high-rise condo on the Upper East Side with him. The breathtaking 180-degree view of the city didn’t disappoint. Newly redone by Erika’s old friend Todd, a sought-after designer, the condo showed off Craig’s art collection and reflected their lifestyle — streamlined and elegant, a bit chilly. Exactly what she’d pictured years ago when they’d joined forces as a couple. Their home was a place to entertain and show off to friends, a setting that proved her life was very much on track.
These were the pleasant thoughts running through her head — she’d just woken up — on the morning after her thirtieth birthday. As she stretched in bed, she recounted the celebration dinner the night before. What had happened still came as a surprise, despite its inevitability.
“Honey, we’ve been engaged for a few years,” Craig had told her. “I’m going on thirty-five, and you just turned thirty. I think we should set the date for this September.”
“What?” His words had caught her off guard. “Are you really serious?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I mean, yes, yes — let’s do it.” He leaned over, caressed her cheek, and handed her a glass of champagne.
“Here’s to us,” he said, smiling. “But drink carefully!”
Erika looked at the ring glistening in the bottom of the flute — the pale amber liquid magnifying the already large diamond. She stared in awe at it. “I know you already have a ring,” Craig went on, “but not the one you deserve. Five years ago I didn’t have the money I have now. Our lives and income have changed. We need to change with it. Happy birthday!
“I know you and my mom will make the perfect wedding happen,” he went on.
Craig smiled, and Erika considered for a moment his mother’s knack for having things just the way she wanted them. He took after her in that way. “Just make her feel important,” he added.
Erika slipped the ring onto her finger. “I love you,” she said. “So much.”
On Monday, Erika hurried to her office, coffee in her right hand, briefcase in her left. She’d dressed carefully, and for effect, as always. The black pencil skirt showed off her lean figure and long legs; her wavy auburn hair was loose and reached to her shoulders. She couldn’t wait to break the news to her staff.
Molly, her assistant, would be pleased, but Erika wasn’t so sure about Tiffany. The young woman was a good businesswoman — competent and attractive, with pampered, long blond hair. Tiffany always dressed well, her high heels accentuating her six-foot height. Erika relied on her to deal with clients. But there was something puzzling about Tiffany’s personality. And her recent breakup with a boyfriend just added to the mystery.
“Good morning, Erika,” Molly called out from behind her desk. “Tiffany’s already in her office . . . and you look extremely happy for a Monday morning.”
“I am! Craig finally asked me to set a date.”
“That’s great, Erika,” Molly added, laughing. “It was about time, if I may say so. You two have been together forever.”
The conversation drew Tiffany out of her office. “What’s that I hear?” she said with a hint of surprise. “When will this wedding be? And where?”
“September second, in the Hamptons. At Craig’s family’s golf club.” “Fancy, fancy!” Tiffany said. “I guess all Hamptons society will be there.”
Moments later, after numerous questions about what she had planned for her gown, the music, catering, and things of that nature — none of which she had answers for yet — Erika was back at her desk scrolling through emails when Molly buzzed her to say she had to sign for a registered letter from Florence, Italy.
“You know I hate being disturbed,” Erika said, more to herself than Molly, who of course knew that. What could possibly be that important from Italy? she wondered as she signed for the letter and pushed it into her designer bag to look at later.
She remembered the letter when she met Craig for a drink and dinner after work. Even with their beautifully renovated kitchen, they rarely ate in and never cooked. It made her feel a tad guilty, but why bother, when they were surrounded by amazing restaurants with chefs competing with each other to turn out gourmet dishes from all over the world.
While they waited for their food, she opened the envelope and started to read. “This has to be a joke,” she said. But no, the letter was real and seemed authentic, though the news it contained was barely believable — a relative of hers had passed away. As his only heir, Erika was to inherit his vineyard in Tuscany. She was to contact the lawyer Bernardo Morselli as soon as possible to set up a meeting in Florence.
“Since when do you have relatives in Italy?” Craig asked.
“It’s news to me,” she said. “I know my grandfather was Italian and my grandmother’s family was from Italy, but she was born in the Bronx. And no one ever spoke about them. No one wanted to talk about it.”
“Do you know why not?”
“A long time ago,” Erika answered, “I found out that apparently my father’s father immigrated from Italy in the early 1950s. He met my dad’s mother in New York, and they got married. My father was born a year later. He was maybe one or two when his father left them. His mother — my grandmother — remarried, and no one ever mentioned her first husband after that. Years later, my father found out that the man his mother was married to was not his biological father. After that, my father and his mother never had a close relationship. She never even came to his wedding.
“And now there’s no one to ask,” she said. “With both my parents dead.” “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know . . . call the lawyer tomorrow, I guess.”
After dinner, when they returned to their apartment, she went to the windows to admire the view. She loved having New York spread out in front of her. She could watch the pedestrians below and follow the lights of traffic that never seemed to slow down. This was her life. Sure, she enjoyed a good glass of wine in the evening, but what could she possibly do with a vineyard in Tuscany?