‘I AM VERY sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, Signorina Caruso, but the fact is that your father had borrowed for years to keep the castello afloat and the bank is threatening to take possession of it now, unless you can buy it back at market value—which I’m afraid is impossible, considering the lack of funds in your family bank account...’
Chiara stood at the huge window of the drawing room where she’d had a meeting with the family solicitor after her parents’ double funeral just a couple of days before. Her arms were wrapped around herself as if that might offer some comfort.
For the last two days and sleepless nights the words had swirled in her head in a confusing painful jumble: bank, take possession, lack of funds. And she was no nearer to seeing a way out of this mess that didn’t end up with her losing everything.
The family castello was an imposing centuries-old castle, set dramatically on the southern coastline of Sicily. Prime real estate that had once functioned and thrived as a farm, growing and exporting lemons and olives. Staples of Italian agriculture.
But once the recession had hit, and the market had taken a nosedive, their crops had all but dried up and died due to lack of demand. They couldn’t afford to keep staff on and, while her father had done his best, clearly it hadn’t been enough. Chiara had offered help time and time again, but her father—old-fashioned and conservative—hadn’t deemed it ‘appropriate work’ for a girl. And she hadn’t realised just how much he’d been borrowing to keep their heads above water.
She castigated herself now. She should have known. But her mother had been ill with cancer, and Chiara had been preoccupied with caring for her. The only reason Chiara was alive today and her father wasn’t was because he’d decided to take his wife to her weekly chemotherapy appointment at the hospital in Calabria.
That morning a week ago he had said to Chiara, ‘You need to go down to the village and see if you can get a job. It’s not enough to just care for your mother any more.’
His tone had been sharp. He’d never made any secret of the fact that he was disappointed Chiara hadn’t been a boy, and that after suffering complications with Chiara’s birth her mother hadn’t been able to have any more children.
So Chiara had gone down to the village—to find that there were no jobs available. She’d never been more aware of her lack of qualifications, and the looks she’d received from the locals had made her feel paranoid.
As a child she’d been sickly, so her mother had home-schooled her. But even when she’d recovered and become strong they’d kept her at the castello. Her father had always had a paranoia about privacy and security, forbidding Chiara to bring anyone back to the castello—not that she’d had any friends! And then her mother had fallen ill, and Chiara had become her carer.
After humiliating herself in the village, looking for work, Chiara had returned home to find her parents still not returned from the hospital. So she’d gone down to her secret place—a small beach tucked out of sight of the castello—and indulged in her favourite pastime, daydreaming, unaware that her parents were breathing their last in a tangle of metal after a catastrophic car crash.
What had made her feel even guiltier afterwards was the dream she’d indulged in—the same one she’d always had: leaving the castello and travelling the world. Meeting a handsome man and finding love and excitement. Yearning for...more.
Now Chiara’s guilty sense of entrapment mocked her. She was finally free, but at such a cost that it left her breathless. She’d lost both her parents, and now it would appear she was about to lose the only home she’d ever known.
It was at a time like this that she felt her isolation even more keenly. Chiara had always lamented her lack of siblings, and had promised herself from an early age that she would have a large family one day. She never wanted any child of hers to feel as alone as she had, in spite of her mother’s love and affection which had never quite made up for her father’s disappointment.
Except now, if the bank took possession of the castello, the least of her worries would be a sense of isolation. She’d have much bigger concerns. Where would she go? What would she do? Her fruitless search for a job in the village was surely the tip of the iceberg when it came to finding work.
The truth was that she wasn’t prepared for life beyond the castello walls at all. In spite of her dreams, she’d always counted on the castello being the anchor of her life, so that no matter where she went or what she did it would always be there to come back to. And eventually—some day—she’d hoped to fill it with a loving family.
The thought of having to leave her home now was agonising...and more than terrifying.
She felt a nudge at her leg and looked down to see their ancient family dog, Spiro, a Sicilian Shepherd. Shaggy and big. He looked up at her with mournful eyes and whined. He’d melted Chiara’s heart when he was a pup, almost fifteen years ago, the runt of the litter and almost blind.
Chiara stroked his head and murmured soft words, wondering what on earth she would do with Spiro when she had to leave.
Just then she heard a noise coming from outside, and Spiro tensed and let out a feeble-sounding bark. Chiara looked out of the window to see a very sleek silver sports car prowling its way up the drive. The automatic main gates had stopped functioning years ago, in spite of her father’s attempts to fix them.
Belatedly she recalled the solicitor saying something the other day about a businessman who had a proposition to put to her. She’d barely taken it in at the time, too overwhelmed with all the other news. But this could be the man he’d been talking about.
The car drew to a halt in the main courtyard, which suddenly looked very shabby and rundown next to such gleaming perfection. Feeling a spurt of irritation that a complete stranger thought it would be okay to discuss anything just days after a funeral, Chiara made reassuring noises to Spiro and then turned from the window and went through the castello to the main door, fully intending to tell whoever it was to come back on a more suitable day.
She doused the feeling of panic that there might not be a more suitable day. She had no idea how fast banks acted in this scenario when taking possession. She could be tossed out by the end of the week.
Feeling more vulnerable and raw than she’d ever felt in her life, Chiara pulled open the massive oak door. For a second she was blinded by sunlight, so all she had was an impression of a very tall dark shape climbing the steps.
She was about to put her hand over her eyes to shade them when the visitor stepped into her eyeline, blocking the sun with his height. Chiara blinked, and blinked again, her hand dropping to her side ineffectually as she took in the sight before her.
It was a man. But such a man as she’d never seen before. The kind of man she’d only seen in her fantasies or read about in stories.
Thick black hair, slightly messy, framed the most savagely beautiful face Chiara had ever seen. High cheekbones and an aquiline nose lent it more than a hint of regality, and his tall, proud bearing reinforced the impression. His mouth was as sculpted as the rest of him—firm and strong.
An intriguing air of decadent sensuality and steeliness made a quiver of something very feminine go through Chiara, all the way to the centre of her being.
She struggled to rouse herself out of the strange lethargy that seemed to have taken hold of her, hindering her ability to function. ‘I’m sorry...can I help you?’