The Formula One tires screeched against the asphalt as it swerved to the right of the practice track. Then, the same thing happened when it made a hard turn to the left. It became a known cycle of ear-splitting sound for at least ten minutes - a time most car racers deem lengthy for a test drive.
Although it was a cold, gloomy evening, thick, white-to-gray smoke could be seen coming out under the engine of the race car. It wasn’t an alarming sight for the spectators however. No one wasn’t concerned when they knew who drove the said vehicle. They just watched in awe in the sidelines, watched with complete adoration on the driver pulling the shots.
After about two laps of run, the race car finally stopped directly in its inspection area and out came the one who did it all: a woman, wearing a black full-face helmet and loose jumpsuit of red and white.
The NASCAR mechanics call her, “The Empress Hand, ” owing it to her skillful and sometimes believed to be magical-works on busted car engines, but her family normally names her, Amanda Caitlin, a twenty-four year-old independent, sociable and health-conscious only daughter of the O’Malley Family.
Whether in or out of her dear stepfather’s company, many admire her not only for the comely, exotic beauty she exuded, but also for her activeness in extreme sports and her uncanny knack for all-things related to masculine work - engine troubleshooting included.
Had it not for this reason, she would have been at New Zealand still where her stepfather’s main office specializing in motorsports was located. And, had it not been for her gay best friend’s insistence to visit his hometown, she would have been in her apartment, eating her home-made dinner and cuddling her white Persian cat.
“Red Panther is good to go, ” announced she pertaining to the highly-prized vehicle of slick red paint. She took out her helmet and tossed it inside the driver’s seat.
The Head Mechanic, Robert, who directly stood near the engine side nodded. He had a graying hair, an overgrowth of beard and wrinkles in his forehead that was expected of a forty-year-old.
“Yes, many thanks Cait, ” he stated with a pat on her back. “You really have a talent on fixing engines.”
“Hmm, that’s the reason why I’m here after all Rob. It’s my job.” She winked at his way and strutted out of the restricted area leaving the man sheepishly tilting his head. It was more of an effect from her charms that’s why he did so, and not because he felt slightly belittled that she did better than him in the mechanical aspect.
“I’m glad we requested boss to let you travel with us to Spa, Belgium, ” another man said with a hint of Italian accent.
He stood at the boundary line waiting for Amanda to cross. He was about ten years younger than the Head, but has his rightful place in the Company being that he was the Vice President, second to her stepfather, Mr. Arnold O’Malley.
With a copper short hair brushed up neatly to the back, a perfect five o’clock shadow beard, and striking masculine features, he could easily pose as Amada’s boyfriend - if she was even open to the prospect of having one.
“Yeah, and you should thank Noman too because he is a major contributor of me coming here, ” replied Amanda as she unzipped the back of the jumpsuit in the man’s front not caring that many pairs of eyes were still glued on her, his included.
The Vice President, who was named Matteo Nikos Threvelli, cocked a brow. “Where is that gay best friend of yours by the way? I thought he wanted to tour you in his hometown?”
Amanda finished pulling the uniform out of her ankles and stilettos before answering him. She balanced herself against the metal railing not wanting to ask for his help with regards to this aspect. But Matteo was very much willing to, if only to play gentleman in front of her. So, without waiting for her to say anything, he helped keep her balance intact by slipping a hand around her waist.
Amanda was unfazed by the intimate contact. She merely owed it to his gentlemanly behavior as had always been for about two years of knowing each other.
“Well, he did, yesterday, immediately after he gave me just four hours of sleep after my twelve hours of flight, ” she answered finally and made a cheeky grin. She handed the uniform to him who in turn handed her brown leather jacket he had been keeping before the start of the test drive.
“Thanks, ” she said, easily forgetting about the contact of his hand on her waist.
“You’re welcome, ” he nodded appreciatively.
“And now he is in an anniversary party probably grinding his ass off. He wanted me to come saying that this party is one of the most awaited parties every year in this country, but as you can see, ” she paused and gestured to the heavily-spotlighted surroundings of metal benches, race tracks, unused tires, and parked race cars with a wave of a hand and continued, “I’m here, tending to my stepfather’s prized Formula Ones.”
Matteo chuckled at her subtle remark of disappointment.
“Hmm, I can sense that you want to join in that party, ” he cited.
Amanda shrugged her shoulders and adjusted her white V-neck tee. “Well, who wouldn’t be? As per Noman’s claim, it would be a fun night of debauchery.”
The man cocked a brow again. “I thought you disliked such stuff. I don’t see you as a happy-go-lucky woman.”
Amanda puckered her lips and grinned. “Of course I am not like that, but it sure would be interesting to see how it plays out on him.”
“Ha! You really are one of a kind Cait.” His eyes glinted with warmth - a rather quick change from his friendly light earlier. “So, I take it you can have dinner with me tonight? I don’t want to have you returning to your best friend’s unit and eat alone in the couch.”
The latter wasn’t taken aback by his smooth intro of a dinner date. She just gave him a playful brow lift and said, “Hmm, let me se—”
But then her answer was cut off when her cellphone rang and vibrated inside her jeans pocket.
She held a hand up near the face of this six footer dressed in impeccable clothes and continued, “Wait, I should take this first.”
Matteo nodded and observed her take out the gadget.
“Caitlin O’Malley speaking, ” she answered as soon as the phone touched her ear
The curve of her smile was clear at first, but then it changed into a thin line. Her brows knitted and she remained silent the whole time the caller reported about her best friend’s state of inebriation.
“Where is that place?” she asked, a sense of urgency coming over her.
The man with a raspy voice in the other side of the line answered concisely including the address and the instructions on how to get there. He even called her ‘Madame’ as if he was like someone of the olden days.
“Alright, I’ll be there in twenty minutes, ” Amanda replied, sure to herself, amidst the fact that she was unfamiliar of the Belgian streets.
“What happened Cait?” asked Matteo as soon as she cut the call.
Amanda huffed. “This is a world record. Noman just found himself already intoxicated early in the night!”
Matteo’s deep chuckle followed. “Wow. That is not a surprise.”
“Oh com’n Matt, give my best friend some credit, ” she slapped his shoulder playfully. “He ain’t that stupid to be in that situation easily.” She tucked her cellphone back in her pocket and raced to leave the grease-splattered waiting area.
Matteo followed closely behind her.
“Let me drive you there, ” was his immediate offer, hoping she would agree. “I don’t want you riding a taxi.”
Amanda stopped and turned to face him. “So kind of you Matt, but do you know where the place is?”
“What’s the name and address of the house?” he inquired instantly.
“House of Vitalis, Libree Road, ” she answered, crossing her arms over her well-endowed chest.
Matteo smiled wildly. “Then, there’s no problem. People who had been in Belgium before knows where that castle is, I myself included.”
“Wait, what? A castle?!” Amanda’s eyes widened.
“Yes, a castle Cait. I haven’t been inside because it is a restricted place, but every year the Vitalis Family opens up their doors to invite the more esteemed of the population for an anniversary party.”
“Wow, that’s typical, ” she commented and rolled her eyes, thinking of Noman and how he pulled strings to be able to get inside. He wasn’t exactly included in the ‘most esteemed’ part of the society being that he was just a budding professor of a famous university in New Zealand and the youngest of a family of teachers. He wasn’t exactly in the super rich and famous list.
“Now, should we go?” Matteo grabbed his car key from his slacks pocket and drew it up their front.
“Yes, yes, I think we should, ” Amanda bobbed her head, “but only if you tell me what you know about this Vitalis Family.”
And so Matteo did, during their travel to Libree Road, which specifically consisted of zero. He admitted of his inadequate knowledge about the Vitalis Family and reasoned because the family was just too private of their lives. No one knew actually of the Vitalis Family history except those who were close to them and by close, meant the family members and first-degree relatives themselves.
Instead of this topic, Matteo took advantage of the opportunity and rushed to cultivate more of Amanda’s lovelife. The latter however kept herself reserved and eluded the man’s questioning rather skillfully explaining she was just too busy to even welcome suitors.
Once the second topic was dropped, Amanda diverted her attention to the landscape seen through her side of the window.
It was a beauty. Trees after trees were everywhere looking like one mass of black clump against the moonlit sky. This part of the region, many called as provincial-looking, and Amanda could very well guess that riding a taxi coming here would be utterly difficult.
“Thank you by the way for accompanying me, Matt, ” she expressed whilst looking at him and noticing how adeptly he drove his newly bought black Aston Martin.
Matteo curved a smile. “No problem, Cait. It is my pleasure.” Although a little bit let down of the way his wooing of her went, he still cherished the fact that they were together.
“We are here, ” he announced, gradually slowing his car to a narrow road that led all the way to the enormous castle stonewall.
“Wow, ” was the only expression Amanda could make as she stared through the windshield.
There lacked a moat, standard towers and a drawbridge but calling the building a castle was correct in every aspect. It looked like two massive white mansions joined in one.
They drove inside the front courtyard, passing through the already open thick iron-wrought gate.
Amanda’s sense of sight underwent a fiesta whilst looking at how the colorful strobe lights sliced through the darkness of the night. It danced all the way to the cloudy sky in time with the loud, head-thudding techno music.
Metallic, sequined, fluffy, lacy, feathery and almost all manners of clothing and appliqués could be seen everywhere worn by different race and genders of guests around the mansion; dancing, eating, or whatever hullabaloo they were doing.
It was a real sight to see.
And to think this was just the courtyard alone. How much more the inside of the castle?
A number of valets awaited them as the car neared. All of these men had tidy, brushed-up hair and ramrod straight backs, standing on top the wide marbled stairs of the front arched portico. In their middle stood the oldest man, donning on a complex piece of butler outfit complete with white gloves and a tailcoat.
Though she had a few words popping out of her mind, Amanda was just too dumbstruck to even audibly comment on how staged and stiffly-organized the whole welcome scene was. She eyed Matteo with one brow lifted and the latter just gave her a lopsided smile.
Both had seen high-class parties in New Zealand and in other parts of the world during their car race travels, but not like this one that was too over-the-top.
“Here we are, ” he announced, putting the Aston in a complete stop.
“So it looks.” Amanda resisted rolling her eyes.
Swiftly, two men descended from the stairs. One man wearing a gray tux accepted the car key when Matteo handed it to him after he disembarked the car while another man wearing the same look of uniform assisted Amanda out of the vehicle.
“Thanks, ” she said, but was cut off with her planned intro speech when the same raspy voice from before greeted.
“Welcome to the Vitalis Estate, Madame O’Malley.”
Amanda stared at the one man different from the rest with enough wonder.
“I am Jerome Gagllaher, Head Majordomo of the Vitalis Family, at your service.”
The man perfected a regal bow in front of the two as if he was a master of all things related to subservience.
Amanda, in effect, attempted a poor half-body bow and said, “You must be the one who called me earlier.”
“Yes, Madame, it is I, ” Jerome answered when he straightened, looking at her and then to Matteo who just briefly dipped his head on his way. “Come and follow me. I shall take you to Mr. Asghar’s quarters now.”
Amanda cocked a brow, surprised.
“You placed my best friend in a guest room?”
The Head Majordomo nodded. “It is imperative that we do so, Madame. Your best friend’s state might cause worry to the other guests.”
“Oh, I don’t think that being drunk causes that, ” Amanda rebutted just as she climbed the wide stairs.
“True, ” was his clipped but rather secretive reply, and because of this, she couldn’t help but feel something was amiss with his sudden lack of explanation.
The butler turned around and gestured for the heavy oak entrance doors. “This way please.”
Amanda just nodded, letting the oddity of his words slip away.
“Noman is just fine Cait. Probably he just had too much to drink, ” Matteo assured, patting a hand on the small of her back on their way into the main foyer. At least this way, he was able to tell her that he was still by her side, accompanying her and not just a silent audience.
Amanda smiled fleetingly at him and answered, “Oh God, I hope so, Matt. I really hope so.”
“Why did the butler call you instead of his family by the way?” Matteo inquired as they stepped inside the castle.
“Well, Noman has an emergency calling card in his wallet. My phone number is conveniently supplied there, ” she answered and then released a sigh. “And besides, his parents are in Pakistan for a vacation and what little family and relatives he have in this country, he didn’t add their numbers in the card. He probably doesn’t want to bother them especially just because of a simple reason as getting drunk. We have both each other to take care of during this times of...wow, ” Amanda trailed off and gaped openly at the spectacular sight before her.
The main foyer looked otherwordly. It was huge and spacious, boasting high ceilings and towering white marble columns. Six massive Murano glass chandeliers were hung to enliven the pearl white ceilings. Black smooth tiles were set as flooring. One grand staircase was visible carpeted with maroon and gold cloths. Its curvaceous balustrade separates and branches into two more wide staircases of the same carpet towards the upper floor.
Furniture of largely Victorian designs could be seen, used by some guests lounging in this part of the castle. Tapestries of the Vitalis coat of arms were hung on the walls. It looked like a cross between a lion and an eagle, with the sun and the moon as its background and a sword and spear to accompany it. Paintings and pictures were hung too, of landscapes and possibly faces of the members of the super rich family.
Amanda had not seen such extravagance like this one ever before, even for a woman who had been through a lot. Everything just bordered on the ridiculous.
“Wow, ” Matteo followed her expression too, awed by the sight as they continued their way up the grand staircase. “No wonder everyone wants to join this party.”
“And you will be welcomed to join too, Milord, ” the Head Majordomo chimed over his shoulder, “Once the matter about Madame O’Malley’s friend is taken care of.”
Matteo immediately shook his head not because he wanted to correct the given appellation but to refuse the servant’s good-natured invitation, “Ah, thank you for the invite but I will have to pass Mr. Gagllaher. I still have other business to attend to this evening.”
The butler nodded once and turned his sights on Amanda. “And Madame O’Malley too?” he asked. “You will be most welcome to stay.”
The one addressed gave a sure shake of her head. “I’m here for my best friend first, Sir. His welfare is my priority.”
“Of course Madame, I understand, ” the butler resigned.
In one of the rooms in the east wing they entered after a five-minute walk along the spacious corridors of the castle. This part of the building seemed off-limits since there weren’t any guests lounging around.
Leaving Matteo and the butler near the room’s chaise lounge, Amanda quickly went to her best friend’s side when she saw him unconscious, sweaty and red-faced, lying on the queen-sized mattress. His metallic purple long-sleeved shirt was open to the belly, tiny bruises of red and blue-violet could be seen in his chest and neck, and an unusual black discoloration was clear on his left wrist.
He reeked of alcohol, strongly, and some other substance Amanda could only guess was a party drug.
“Goodness, you really have outdone yourself this time now huh, Dom?” she whispered as she brushed a curly lock from his mass of blacks.
Noman’s well-shaved brows flinched as if he knew of his best friend’s presence.
Amanda produced a tiny smile, relieved that his state wasn’t as bad as she feared it was.
“I reckon I have new guests in my house, Jerome?” a voice so silvery, so low sounded from the bedroom door without warning that all of the occupants of the room turned an immediate ear.
Matteo shot a look at the intruder and so did Amanda who, for some reason, felt a sudden chill at the soles of her feet upon seeing the man.
It was the Master of the castle - the Vitalis Master - standing with an aura of superiority. Together with him was a black panther which took a guarded stand near him, looking every bit a hungry predator to Amanda and Matteo.
The Head Majordomo swiftly executed another perfect bow, lower than earlier, as if he wasn’t at all concerned with the beast. “Master Cord, yes, you do have two. These are Mr. Asghar’s friends here to take care of him, ” he responded with great care.
“Hmm, I sense it so, ” was the Master’s cool reply, but Amanda thought it odd.
She diverted her attention from the animal to him and unconsciously gulped, feeling this new man’s eyes nailed on her amidst the fact that he wore a blindfold.
Her heartbeat sped, not because of his presence, but how intimidating he looked, holding a heavily engraved silver cane and wearing a white half-open button shirt, black slacks and black trench coat.
This man is the Master of the House?
He looked an inch taller than Matteo. Self-assured, aristocratic-looking, with body built and facial features five times better. He had a sexy unkempt hair of dark brown to black that Amanda would have thought it cut short if not for a long rattail kept loosely with a thin band and draped on his broad shoulder. Better. Better than any other man could pull off. He seemed to be Matteo’s age, or maybe even a year older.
While shamelessly ogling, she saw a brief twitch from the corner of his mouth and then followed by a clench of his jaw.
“I apologize for the circumstances that had befallen on your friend, Miss...”
“Amanda Caitlin O’Malley, my liege, ” the butler supplied thoughtfully.
“Yes, Amanda, ” the Master continued, highlighting that one name only. “My relatives have thrown this party. I permitted them to do so under the understanding that no one shall be harmed under the roof, yet here is Mr. Asghar, all wasted...in more ways than one.”
His face dipped briefly to the unconscious man as if showing that he knew where he lay even with the blindfold on.
Amanda’s cheeks burned, not in anger but in disappointment of how strongly he affected her just by saying the disliked name.
Yes, she hated being called ‘Amanda’, but she couldn’t say that to him unfortunately.
“People get drunk, Mr. Vitalis, that is a known fact by all. You don’t need to apologize at all, ” Amanda confidently answered.
“Yes, that is...true, ” the Master replied. “But considering the circumstances, I suggest Mr. Asghar stays in this room until the morrow. I do not want you or your friend bothering his sleep just to bring him home. Let the man rest.”
Amanda lifted a brow. “Kind of you to offer that, Mr. Vitalis. You care too much for a drunk man. I can’t help but think there is more to my bestfriend’s story than your butler initially reported, ” she stated, no hesitation at all. Of course, the bruises in Noman’s chest and neck looked alarming but she could always connect it to hickeys. The discoloration in his wrist seemed unusual however, and that was what made Amanda question the story.
The Master didn’t look bothered by her words at all. If anything, he stayed still and composed, and even smirked a little towards her way.
Amanda felt unusually violated by that.
“You could always ask your friend once he wakes up, ” was his simple reply.
“And she will, Mr. Vitalis, ” Matteo cut in, making his presence known. “Good evening by the way.” He dipped his head still even when the Master didn’t look his way. “I am Ms. O’Malley’s friend, Matteo Nikos Threvelli. In behalf of her and Noman, I would like to thank you for your show of concern, but I believe it is up to Caitlin if she wants for her bestfriend to stay the night here.”
“That is not a topic worth contemplating over, Amanda’s friend, ” the Master stated, not even using Matteo’s given name. “My relatives’ guests are mine too and it is my responsibility to see to their needs. Let Mr. Asghar stay here. I don’t accept objections.” Then, with a lift of his cane towards Amanda, he continued, “You can stay here too if you so wish.”
“I will, ” was Amanda’s quick reply. “For my friend and not for the party.”
“Of course, ” the Master’s smirk widened, “such a thoughtful friend you are.”
If Amanda didn’t know better, she would have thought that he was pleased of her staying inside the castle.
“Do you think it wise Cait?” Matteo inquired, walking towards the mattress. “I can always drive the two of you back to the apartment.”
“No, ” Amanda shook her head, “it is convenient this way. It is less hassle and Dom gets to sleep straight. You know how cranky he is when his sleep gets cut off.”
Matteo sighed in defeat and eyed the Master and his butler who both listened to their conversation.
“Very well, ” he announced, “but call me in case you change your mind.”
“I will, ” Amanda awarded him a grateful smile.
“I will prepare a room for you then, Madame O’Malley, ” the butler offered, but Amanda quickly raised a hand up.
“No, please, don’t bother. It is obvious that this castle can accommodate hundreds of people, but I prefer to stay by my bestfriend’s side, to sleep next to him that is.”
“As you wish Madame, ” Jerome answered. He dipped his head briefly, placed an arm near his belly like any butler would and waited for his Master’s command, but he didn’t get any.
“A pleasant evening to both of you. I will be on my study, Jerome, ” the Master announced, turned heels and then ambled out of the threshold waiting not for any response from those addressed.
The panther however didn’t follow him. It had another plan in mind. It sprinted forward and crossed the space towards Amanda’s feet.
She, together with Matteo and the butler, gasped. The Master quickly turned his head on her way sensing what the animal had just done.
“Shhhsh...shhh, easy boy, ” Amanda expressed with shaking lips and her hands high up in surrender. She was downright afraid that the predator neared her. She honestly thought it would attack, but to her surprise, it just nudged its head against the underside of her thigh, groaning and purring.
“Shall I pull the panther out Milord?” Jerome offered intuitively, looking at his Master’s way.
Cord squeezed the head of his cane. “No, you don’t need to. She won’t be mauled. My pet likes her. Surprisingly.”
Amanda, after hearing that, slowly placed a hand on the panther’s forehead. “This is...unexpected, ” she remarked, growing a small smile on her face.
Matteo just stood still, but ready to jump if and when the animal would turn against her.
“Come to me...” Cord muttered and with that, the panther immediately left Amanda’s side to her and the others’ relief. “Once again, I bid you good night, ” he stated and went out of the room with, finally, the animal in tow.
Amanda inhaled deeply and for the third time, raised a brow.
“Your Master doesn’t have a human being to accompany him while walking? Only a big cat?” she inquired once the receiving room’s door closed, slightly intrigued of this rich and powerful man’s circumstances.
“No Madame, he doesn’t need one, ” the Head Majordomo answered, still standing near the threshold. “And the panther is just his pet. It isn’t his aid. He is...more than capable of walking by himself even with his blind state.”
“Wow, what a resilient man. He seriously should give an inspirational talk to blind and disabled persons.”
Jerome suppressed a chuckle. “I assure you Madame, he wouldn’t fit that because my Master is no disabled man.”
What he meant by that, Amanda couldn’t piece out. She just shoved all conversations in the back of her head once he and Matteo left an hour later after their dinner.
Even though they were there for a different reason, the butler still invited them to sample the party’s cuisines and wines.
Although reluctant, Amanda agreed, knowing that they had a long day in the race circuit. To dine and relax a little wouldn’t hurt, especially when it was a well-deserved one.
But during her time eating in the garden, Amanda couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. It was as if she had captured someone’s attention more than just the sense of sight alone. She had experienced men ogle her countless of times and for various reasons. She cared none of it. This time however was different. It affected her so much it brought a tremble to her bone.
Unluckily for her, it persisted until she lay in bed next to her still-asleep best friend.
To remedy it, she opened the only balcony Noman’s chamber had to let in the noisy techno sound, just so it could drive the unwelcomed feeling away.
And it did, temporarily, until sleep beckoned her.