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She’d spent so long yearning to see the world, but she’d never expected to be thrust out into it so precipitately. She didn’t feel ready.

Chiara avoided the area near the small chapel and the graveyard and went down to her private place by the shore. It was a tiny sandy cove, sheltered on all sides by rocks. She sat on the rough sand and pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. Spiro sank down beside her.

It was only now that she could let the tears flow—for her parents and for the shock of learning just how precarious her position was. She cried for a few minutes, until her face started to feel puffy, and then she forced herself to stop, wiping at her cheeks with the sleeves of her dress. She never usually indulged in self-pity.

She thought of Nicolo Santo Domenico in his bespoke suit, oozing sophistication and success. Arrogance. Retribution. Threat and a kind of redemption all at once. She’d never met anyone so ruthlessly compelling.

Giving in to an urge to find out more about the man who had just blown apart what little security she’d felt she had left, Chiara went back into the castello and fired up her father’s ancient desktop computer.

Eventually it came to life, and she sat down in a worn leather chair to search for information on the Santo Domenicos.

The first thing to come up were pictures of him, looking even more astoundingly handsome than she remembered, dressed in a tuxedo at glittering functions. And in each one there was a stunning woman on his arm. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. He didn’t appear to have a preference. They were all tall, slim and intimidatingly beautiful.

He wasn’t smiling in any of the pictures. He looked driven. Stern.

Chiara quickly clicked on some other links that told the fabled story of how Nicolo Santo Domenico had displayed his entrepreneurial skills from an early age in Naples. He’d honed those skills and at the tender age of twenty-one had gone to New York and become a millionaire. Within five years he’d become a billionaire and a legend.

She unearthed a very old article from an Italian newspaper, asking what had happened to the once all-powerful Santo Domenico family from Sicily. There was no mention of the castello, just a general reference to the fact that they’d once owned huge tracts of land in Sicily but had lost it all. The implication was that perhaps the Santo Domenicos had run foul of the mafia.

Chiara shivered again, absorbing the information. Of course all this didn’t mean that Nicolo Santo Domenico would have a leg to stand on if he was to challenge ownership of the castello in a court, but the fact was that the bank now owned the castello—or as good as. Nicolo Santo Domenico was merely capitalising on the fact that the castello was now available to him in a way it had never been before.

She stood up and walked slowly through the castello, noting how many of the rooms had long been shut up, with their furniture covered in dustsheets. Everywhere was crumbling and falling apart. It had been in disrepair for as long as Chiara could remember. The truth was that they’d never really been able to afford it—even when their crops had been providing an income.

The castello deserved to have new life breathed into it. Chiara’s heart squeezed to think that she wouldn’t be here to see it. And then she realised she also wouldn’t be here to tend her parents’ grave. Or her grandparents’.

It was unutterably cruel to think of the castello being shut to her when her own family were laid to rest here.

As Nicolo Santo Domenico’s were.

But, reminded a small inner voice, Nicolo Santo Domenico is offering you a chance to stay.

Through marriage.

The thought of marrying a man like him left her breathless with a number of conflicting emotions.

She’d never in a million years imagined that the faceless man she’d fantasised about all her life would actually appear on her doorstep, but as soon as she’d seen Nicolo Santo Domenico’s hard and beautiful features she’d felt a pull of recognition deep inside, as if finally she had a face to put to the handsome prince of her dreams.

She felt disgusted at herself now. At the years of naive dreaming in a home that hadn’t even been rightly hers.

And Nicolo Santo Domenico hadn’t come for her. He’d come for the property, she reminded herself soberly. She was just a convenient by-product. Or a bonus. She shivered again, but this time it was in reactio

n to imagining what sharing intimacies with Nicolo Santo Domenico would be like.

Chiara saw her reflection in the window. She knew how she looked—plain and boring. Unvarnished. She’d inherited her large breasts from her paternal grandmother, along with her average height and the hourglass shape which had gone out of fashion about fifty years ago.

One day Chiara had heard her father say to her mother, ‘Our daughter won’t turn heads, but she’ll make some man a fertile wife.’

Her cheeks burned again as the humiliation came back. And then she crushed the thought. She shouldn’t be thinking ill of her father. But he had grown bitter after his wife hadn’t been able to have any more children and he’d been denied the son he’d desperately wanted. Chiara wondered now how much of that had had to do with his knowledge of the provenance of the castello.

Had he wanted a son to ensure the Caruso name stayed alive within the castello because he’d known of the history?

Chiara let herself consider Nicolo Santo Domenico’s...proposition. Surely he couldn’t really mean to marry her? Was he really ruthless enough to convince himself that marriage to an unsophisticated Sicilian woman was worth the price of regaining his family inheritance?

Anger rose inside Chiara at the thought that he could treat her like a pawn. And that he’d assumed to know her, based on what he had judged of her appearance and demeanour. The fact that he hadn’t been completely wrong made her pride smart. But there was so much more to her than a mere dream to marry and love in this place.

No matter what he’d said here today, he couldn’t truly mean to go through with a marriage to a complete stranger.

Chiara thought of Nicolo Santo Domenico’s expression when he’d left—almost smug. As if he’d achieved exactly the outcome he’d expected and knew she’d come around in the end, in spite of her refusal.