The Twelve Vitali Ch. 13

byxelliebabex©

"It is a possibility. It is also a possibility that Matteo could be named as Oracle and you would be given the same choice as his mother," Roberto mused. "Tell me, would you marry his brother to have the life you want with Matteo?"

"How can I answer that? Which brother? I don't know all of his brothers," she said, bewildered by the question and wondering why the possibility hadn't occurred to her.

"It is quite a simple question really. Do you love Matteo enough to publicly marry his brother in order to have the private life you want with him?" Roberto asked.

"I had thought it would be the other way around, and once married I would need to accept someone into our relationship," she said quietly. "I had thought that if it was Ricco, I could do that. I do genuinely still care about him. It's not the love I feel for Matteo, but I care about him, and, over time, who knows." Cat said honestly.

"It is dangerous to pre-empt what may or may not happen. Jacobi has learned this lesson and has gone to Europe for a time to lick his wounds. For the sake of argument, let's consider your way of thinking. What if you marry Matteo and one of my younger sons become his oracle? They are eighteen and not as worldly as the man you would consider marrying," Roberto said.

"Is that not the role of a Kept, to teach your sons how to be worldly in the way you mean?" she laughed. "You are right, we can't know what the future holds, but you know your family and will guide its future. So, it is you I have come to in search of answers and guess I should have been asking the questions you have asked of me. Would your other sons accept me as part of this family if I married your second son?"

"Now that is the question, isn't it?" Roberto smiled. "Let's ask one, shall we?" he tapped on his phone, and a few minutes later there was a knock on the door before it opened. "Lucca, come in and meet Catriona," he welcomed his son.

"Hey," Lucca said, holding out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Catriona." He turned to his father with a raised eyebrow.

"Hello, just Cat is fine, hardly anyone calls me Catriona," she smiled.

"Oh, you're The Cat!" Lucca chuckled. "In that case, it's very nice to meet you." He bent his head to kiss her cheek, surprising Cat. "Does that mean Matt's home?"

"Yes," she laughed.

"I have a puzzle even he can't fluke his way through," he grinned mischievously. "Do you like puzzles?" Lucca fished in his pocket and pulled out a circular metal puzzle with interlocking pieces and passed it to her. "This is one of my current favourites."

"Is this one of those that you have to hold just right before it comes apart?" she asked, examining the interlocking pieces.

"Something like that," he nodded, watching her as she examined it and played with the small amount of movement in the pieces, which, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be permanently locked together. "So, you just called me in here to meet Cat?" Lucca asked Roberto.

"Matteo has been trying to convince Catriona to marry him. She's concerned that the family won't approve," Roberto said.

"If he loves her, why would it matter what we think?" Lucca shrugged and looked back at her to find she had worked out the puzzle quickly. "The trick is putting it back together," he chuckled, taking the pieces from her and jiggling them together in his hand before passing them back. "Ricco likes you. I assume Jacobi likes you. Why would you think the rest of us would think any different?"

"I guess I didn't make the best first impression on everyone, and I was just concerned that maybe..." her voice trailed off as she concentrated on the puzzle in her hands. "Forget I mentioned it." She smiled and passed him back his puzzle, "That one's not so hard once you realise it's a spiral and not meant to be flat. I used to work with a guy who collected those sorts of puzzles. He loved the Chinese puzzle boxes the most."

"I have a few of those if you want to take a look sometime," he offered.

"I'd like that," she said. "If that's the puzzle you're planning on giving Matteo, I think he can fluke it," she looked at the puzzle in Lucca's hand.

"I've something diabolical for him. Speaking of which, where would I find him?" he asked, looking at Cat and Roberto.

"He's with Stefano," Roberto said. "You can go; we understand you've missed him." He smiled indulgently.

"It was good to meet you, Cat, we'll catch up again before you go," he grinned and left the room.

"Matteo is missed when he is away from home. I would like you to bring him home to Melbourne," Roberto said. "He will stay in Brisbane with you if you decide to stay there, and I'm afraid that he could regret that decision if Stefano's health continues to deteriorate."

"I've agreed to return with him and work remotely from Melbourne on further projects for the Donati family. I had thought we could come back after the gallery opening next weekend," Cat offered thoughtfully. "I hadn't realised Stefano was so unwell, and I wouldn't like to be the reason Matteo has regrets."

"I can see that, and believe it is important for you both to return as soon as possible," Roberto said in a commanding tone. "If you want to be accepted by us then you need to put our family, your family now, before the needs of the Donati."

"I understand," she nodded.

"Will you accept his proposal, knowing what you know now?" Roberto asked, pinning her with a delving gaze.

"If I say yes, what happens if he is named Oracle?" she asked. "I imagine you are far from retiring, and his brothers may all grow up and find wives of their own. Would he have to divorce me?" she asked anxiously.

"Perhaps," Roberto nodded, being frank. "You could stay with him and the family as Kept, but I think that is not the life you want. Still, as you said, you could have many years of wedded bliss before having to think about whether he is given any role on the new table and what that role might be. All this concern may be for nothing as the younger brothers mature and prove themselves as family men."

"So, you would suggest I live in the now and let the future take care of itself?" she asked.

"I would suggest that, although the future is not set in stone. There are likely outcomes, and if you marry my son, I need to know you love him enough to open your heart to his brothers as well, and if the situation arose share the love you feel for Matteo," he said carefully as he watched her think through all that had been said.

"I love him," she said simply, looking down at the wide gold bangle with the kitten clasp Matteo had bought her that afternoon to remind her of her place in his life now. "I love him more than enough to jump through all of the hoops becoming part of this family and being with him would entail."

"I will give you until the art showing in Brisbane to be sure, then, if you still wish to jump through my hoops, you will be sent to the Battaglia to undergo a trial," he said ominously. "Only then will you be able to publically announce your engagement." The tone of his voice was the same commanding tone Matteo used with her when he wanted her total obedience, and she quivered.

"Yes, Roberto," she answered as if on automatic pilot.

"Now, I think it's time I spoke to my son about his plans, don't you?" he asked, and she could see that he was pleased somehow by the mischievous glint in his eyes and the slight upward curl of his mouth.

******

Mia had taken it upon herself to become Cat's best friend and introduced her to the members of the family as they arrived, making her feel instantly welcome as she sat on the back patio overlooking the pool.

"I'm sorry," Trista said contritely after gaining a moment alone with Cat. "Matteo has never been serious about any woman. Even his fling with Nik was never truly serious, that I knew of, and... well, I just assumed, and I'm sorry. It's good to see him so happy now, I'm glad I didn't mess it all up for him and you."

"I think I might have done enough of my own messing up at the beginning, and I might have over-reacted a little bit to what you were saying," Cat admitted.

"I still shouldn't have said what I did or treated you that way, even if you weren't just a fling Matteo was having. I understand how awful that must have been for you now, and I'm glad you don't hold it against me," Trista admitted her fault, despite Cat's kind words. She'd taken an awful lot for granted growing up in this family and not being under the same pressures as the boys to be successful and accept the responsibilities of being the future leaders of this family where everyone would look to them for guidance in some ways.

She had been forced to open her eyes to the privileged life she led, particularly when her mother had visited the facility. Thersa had arrived, not to commiserate with her over the harsh treatment of her fathers, but to inform her that unless she changed her attitude she would arrange her marriage immediately and deliver her to her new family when she left the facility. After a lifetime of flaunting the rules that all her other siblings lived by, her fathers were finally disciplining her, and for the first time had her mother's backing.

It was only after that visit that she began to start listening to the men who had been trying to tutor her in the old ways and the expectations for the women of the tables in exchange for the privileged and cossetted lives they led. She would never have to learn how to cook or clean or do the menial tasks of the average person, but she would need to become a kind, gracious and benevolent lady who understood all walks of life and appreciated what they brought to society. Cat had been nothing but friendly to her on that fateful day, taking all of her acerbic criticisms and obvious disapproval with a smile. Even Andie had tried to warn Trista that she had gone too far several times, but she hadn't heard the warning, or hadn't listened properly to what she was being told, to be more precise.

"I've been away for a few weeks, so it will be good to see everyone together again," Trista commented as Aria and Zion arrived.

"Oh, I hope it was a good trip," Cat commented, looking around for Matteo and wishing he would materialise now that she was faced with so many new faces on her own. Even the familiar face of Ricco would have been welcome to her right then.

"It was educational, not much fun to be had. I learned a lot though," she said, unsurprised that Cat had no idea about her punishment.

"There you are," Lucca said, striding across to where she stood. "Try this one," he passed Cat another puzzle that could fit in the palm of her hand.

"Did you find Matteo?" she asked.

"Yeah, he's still upstairs with Papa," he shrugged. "I guess that they'll be down soon enough. I think Mama is getting impatient with them and will go and make them come down soon."

*****

"It's a question only, Matteo," Roberto said sternly. "The same one I asked Catriona."

"And I answered it," Matteo blew out a large breath. "I would refuse my destiny as Oracle rather than make her live as a Kept." He said in a much calmer tone without all of the expletives.

"You would let her marry one of your brothers so you could have the life you wanted with her?" Stefano asked. This was what he had done, and he knew how hard it was, even for the fact that he knew Roberto loved Maria too.

"It's preferable, but not what I would want. Fuck, the twins are twenty years younger than me. You would deny me the right to marry Cat for a decade or more until they were old enough to assume their birthright?" Matteo snapped.

"I would not want that, no. We are only hypothesising here. No decisions have been made, we just want you to be aware of all possibilities," Stefano said.

"What about Jacobi? Did you ask him all of this?" Matteo demanded.

"No, Jacobi was never in a position to lead our family as chair or Oracle, so his marital status was unimportant," Roberto said carefully.

"Yet you let him believe for so long, let Ricco believe," Matteo was horrified. "Ricco gave up Cat for that belief."

"We don't see it like that," Stefano said gently. "They both had lessons to learn, and if it were meant to be, Ricco and Cat would have come back together in time. It wasn't though, and here you are fighting for your right to marry the woman you love."

"Are you interested in Catriona's response to the question?" Roberto asked.

"I know what it would be," Matteo said offhandedly. "She wouldn't let Ricco treat her that way, and she wouldn't be the woman I love now if I force her to it in the future. You asked the question, and I answered it," he said calmly this time. "I'm going to marry Cat, and if you name me Oracle, I will renounce my position on the table and walk away from everything I believe in as good for our family and all of the Tables."

"Yet she would accept it for life with you," Roberto said.

"There isn't much that woman wouldn't endure for the people she loves, but it would change her, hurt her, and I don't want that or a relationship with my brother's wife, whoever that may be. I want Cat," Matteo said, all of the fight leaving him as he realised he may have to give up the future he had been groomed for his whole life. "I never believed I would lead the family, not as Chair or Oracle anyway, I believed I was free to make my own choices."

"Perhaps you still can, it was only a hypothetical question, after all," Stefano said. "Nothing has been decided, but it is good to know how you feel before we give our blessing to the proposed marriage of our second son."

"All we ask at this time is that you wait to announce your engagement until after she undergoes a trial suitable to the Thirteenth," Roberto said, gentler now in his approach. The devotion both Matteo and Cat had to each other was commendable; his son's adamant refusal to entertain the idea of becoming an oracle was surprising, but not altogether out of character. He had built himself an empire in the business world; it only stood to reason that he would have the same single-mindedness in his personal life.

"Fine," Matteo growled. "If she agrees to the trial."

"She already has, my son. Did you not say just minutes ago that she would endure anything for the people she loves?" Roberto asked.

"And at the moment she is downstairs enduring meeting my family without me, if you'll excuse me," Matteo said with an edge to his voice and left the room.

*****

"Shit!" Ricco said under his breath as he spotted Matteo looking thunderous as he walked with purposeful strides toward the back patio with Roberto following him at a distance. He moved quickly to intercept his brother and placed a careful hand on his shoulder. "Whatever happened up there, let it go, she's nervous enough, and you look like you could kill someone," Rocco said in a low murmur. "Stop and think about how easily she runs when she thinks she's the cause of a problem before you take another step," he added as Matteo tried to shrug off his hand.

Of all of the siblings, Matteo was the most in control of his emotions, until recently. Now it seemed to Ricco that his brother was having trouble hiding his frustration and temper more often than not. He wondered what had gone on upstairs and looked past Matteo's shoulder to Roberto as he felt his brother take a shuddering breath and relax slightly.

"You good?" Ricco asked, searching his brother's face.

"Yeah, I'm good, Thanks, Ric," Matteo said in a low murmur to equal his brother's.

"Great, because you probably should know that I think Lucca has fallen a little in love with Cat's puzzle brain," he chuckled and watched as Matteo raised an eyebrow in surprise. "She's good," he explained in response. "Maybe better than you even."

"I highly doubt that," Matteo said arrogantly, but grinned. He was proud that Cat had found a way to bond to at least one of his younger brothers. "I guess we better save her then," he said in an even tone as Ricco released him and they walked out to the patio together.

"Hey," he said softly as he approached Cat. "Sorry I was so long." He bent his head and brushed his lips against hers.

"It's okay," she smiled. "Your brothers and sisters have been keeping me entertained."

"So, I hear," he looked at Lucca and shook his head. "Can I get you a drink?" Matteo asked Cat.

"No, play with your brother, he's been waiting for you to appear for a long time," she laughed.

"Okay, show me this diabolical puzzle," Matteo smirked at Lucca.

"You won't have enough time to do it now, and I don't want to make you all frustrated and grumpy in front of your girlfriend during dinner, who, by the way, is possibly better than you at solving my puzzles," Lucca said with an answering smirk.

"She's better than me at a lot of things," Matteo shrugged easily, making Lucca's eyes widen in shock at Matteo's admission.

"Somebody write down the time and date, Cat's going to want to remember this moment for future reference!" he laughed loudly.

"I don't know, I think you have the legs to wear a dress as well as I do," Cat said with a perfectly straight face, making Lucca laugh even harder.

"Definitely not that dress," Ricco remarked with a grin.

"Maybe not, but perhaps something with a fuller skirt and flowing lines," Trista chimed in, thoughtfully appraising her brothers figure.

"You see what you have done?" Matteo groaned and shook his head.

"I just gave credit where credit's due, you do have very nice legs," Cat smiled sweetly and kissed his cheek. "He mightn't wear the dress, but if you considered designing a men's wear line I imagine you'd have at least seven instant clients," she told Trista and looked around the room.

"Maybe shorts for summer to show off those legs?" Trista asked.

"I don't think I've seen Matteo's legs in the last decade," Mia announced and looked at him quizzically. "I'll help you, Trista, if you can get him to agree to wear them at the Gathering."

"Your family has a Gathering?" Cat asked.

"Yeah, big family gathering every year, Cat," Mia nodded.

"I went to the Donati Gathering recently," she admitted. "I guess I hadn't thought that your family would do the same sort of thing."

"Ours is a bit quieter than the all singing, all dancing Donatis', I have no doubt," Matteo chuckled.

"Why were you there?" Lucca frowned. "It's usually only reserved for the close family, despite the numbers that attend."

"I was doing a portrait of them, and it was the best place to have them all in one spot. I signed a lot of paperwork to be able to be there and work with those people though, if that makes you feel better," she laughed.

"The new table portrait?" Zion asked as he and Aria finally seemed interested in the conversation.

"Yes," she smiled.

"Joshua Donati is thrilled with it, and he invited Papa to the gallery when they unveil it," Aria said, stepping closer. "I didn't know you did portraits as well as the landscape stuff you did for Vanessa."

"Frankie has one of her portraits, that's how I found her," Vanessa piped in, wanting to take credit for discovering the woman that her family was suddenly fascinated with. Despite all she had done for Cat, her friendship and amenability, she had quit the job as a corporate artist and left her high and dry. She had to find the remaining pieces she needed from local galleries at short notice. She was still mad about that, and wasn't sure she entirely approved of an unreliable woman like Cat dating her brother. She kept her mouth closed though, she knew what had happened to Trista when she voiced her disapproval, and didn't want that for herself. Once the HQ building was finished, however, she would be moving to Sydney and marrying her long term, long distance boyfriend and she wouldn't have to think about it again.

"Oh, I have seen that," Aria tilted her head. "I didn't realise you were the artist, it's good." She nodded as if her approval was what they were waiting for.

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