Chiara’s head was bent down over the card as if she was studying it intently. A lock of long hair trailed over one shoulder and it gleamed a light mahogany in the light. His eye was drawn to her waist. Once again he could sense that her clothes were disguising a very classic feminine shape. The kind of shape that had been out of fashion for years but which was proving to be potent enough to snare his interest.
For a moment he hesitated, wondering if he was crazy to seek commitment with this woman. She intrigued him now, but could she sustain his interest for the length of a marriage? His sexual interest?
If the strength of his attraction was anything to go by, his body was telling him yes. And he was reminded of how little had sparked his interest in recent months. Certainly none of the tall, angular women he’d favoured before.
His wife would also be the mother of his children, and Nico surprised himself with a surge of conviction that he wanted a woman who would care for her children and not abandon them as he had been abandoned.
He couldn’t trust any woman not to abandon her children, but at least Chiara Caruso knew about legacy—even if it hadn’t been rightfully hers. She understood it. And evidently, if the state of the castello was any kind of indication, she was a woman who had been deprived of the better things in life. In Nico’s experience it wouldn’t take much to accustom her to the kind of luxuries he could provide.
But she was refusing to meet his eye now. Nico was used to women gazing at him with naked adoration and a lust that barely masked their instant summing up of his net worth. It was a silent dialogue he knew well and which he welcomed—because there was no game-playing or pretence of emotions that weren’t there.
He wasn’t used to this...this uninterest. Or antipathy. And he found that, refreshing as it was, it irritated him.
‘Chiara.’ His voice sounded tight.
Eventually she looked up and he saw fire in the depths of her eyes, making them glow. ‘I did not give you leave to call me by my name.’
His pulse throbbed. A sizzle of something deeper than arousal infused his blood. Nico had to admire her spirit. Not many had the confidence to speak back to him and he realised that he’d underestimated her.
He dipped his head slightly. ‘Scusami. Signorina Caruso. I am offering you an opportunity to stay in your family home, which is more than anyone in your family ever did for anyone in mine. Think about it.’
Chiara desperately wanted to look away from those deep-set dark eyes but she couldn’t. It was as if his gaze was winding a spell around her, holding her captive. The air vibrated with a kind of electricity between them.
She wanted him gone, so she could try and process everything that had just happened, so she said the only thing she knew that would make him leave. ‘Fine. I will consider your offer.’
Nicolo Santo Domenico inclined his head and then he walked out.
Spiro trotted after him, as if to make sure he really was leaving.
Only when Chiara heard the powerful throttle of his car’s engine did she move and go back over to the window, catching a flash of silver as it disappeared down the drive. She shivered, as if a cold finger had just danced down her spine.
The first thing Chiara did was to ring her solicitor and ask him for the deeds of the castello.
His sharp response—‘Why do you want to see them?’—merely heightened the churning in her gut.
She asked him bluntly, ‘Is it true that this castello once belonged to another family?’
The man was silent for a long moment and then Chiara heard muffled sounds, as if he was instructing someone to close a door.
He asked again, ‘Why are you asking for this information now, Signorina Caruso? All you need to know is that the castello belongs to you until such time as the bank takes possession.’
‘Please tell me the truth.’ Her hand was gripping the phone receiver.
He sighed. ‘Yes, I believe so—the castello did belong to another family, but they lost it around the time of the Second World War. The deeds have been in the Caruso name for decades... I really don’t see how this has anything to do with—’
Chiara let the phone drop back into its cradle.
It was true.
When she was small she’d been fascinated by history and she’d used to beg her Papa to tell her stories about the castello and who had built it centuries ago. She’d wanted to know all about her ancestors—had they been Arab Moors? Or maybe marauding Greeks? Her father had used to laugh off her questions, telling her that her imagination would get her into trouble one day... She saw now how he’d neatly avoided telling her anything about the history of the castello.
Because he hadn’t known? Or hadn’t he wanted to admit the truth—that it didn’t really belong to them?
Chiara felt the castello closing in on her, as if now that she knew, it was silently condemning her.
She walked outside, needing to shake off that uncomfortable feeling, Spiro loyally following at her heels. It was cool in the January sunshine and she drew in deep breaths of air infused with the evocative scents of the earth and sea. She’d often thought that if she could bottle this scent she would wear it for ever. It was home.
A home she was about to lose.