She’d called his bluff and it hadn’t worked. Clearly he was willing to go as far as marriage.
Chiara looked out over the view and realised there was nothing between her and a precipitous drop to the sea except the terrace wall. She felt dizzy for a moment, as if the wall had suddenly disappeared and she was teetering on the edge of a vast void.
The question slid into her mind and she couldn’t stop it. What if you said yes? What if you just said...yes?
She wouldn’t have to take that leap into the void. She wouldn’t have to face the heartache of never being able to pay her respects to her parents...her grandparents. She would see the castello restored to its former glory. A glory she’d never really witnessed.
Nicolo Santo Domenico might be willing to go as far as marrying her now, but once he saw how lacking she was in social graces and worldly sophistication—once he saw how unsuitable she was to be his wife—surely he’d realise that he’d made a huge mistake and call it off, move on to a more suitable woman?
A seed of hope bloomed in Chiara’s gut. If they got divorced wouldn’t she then have a chance to negotiate terms for access to the castello? At least visitation rights? It wouldn’t be lost to her for ever.
For the first time since she’d heard his outrageous proposal, marriage to Nicolo Santo Domenico didn’t seem like such a ridiculous suggestion.
Chiara heard a noise behind her and tensed—as much against the noise as at the way her blood leapt and her skin grew hot. It was disconcerting to find herself reacting like this. Disconcerting and galling that her own body could let her down so easily.
Chiara took a deep breath and turned around. She wasn’t ready to leave her home. Her life. Not yet. Not until she’d negotiated terms to gain access. It was clear he wouldn’t give her an ounce of leeway unless she agreed to marry him. But at least if she could do it on her terms then it might be worth the upheaval.
She looked at Nicolo Santo Domenico and told herself that if he wanted to insist on entering into a legally binding state to further his own interests then she would at least ensure that it would protect hers, too.
She lifted her chin. ‘I will agree to marry you—but on one condition.’
There was a long beat of tense silence and then he inclined his head slightly and said, ‘Not that you’re really in a position to negotiate...but I’m listening.’
Chiara nearly crumbled at the last second, but she knew this was the only way she’d have a chance of keeping any kind of claim on the castello.
‘My condition is that after six months we review the marriage and see how it’s working. And there will be no question of having children until after the six-month trial period.’
As Chiara didn’t expect Nicolo Santo Domenico to be remotely interested in giving up the parade of beauties in his life any time soon, she felt fairly confident that in spite of his pronouncement about heirs he hadn’t actually planned on having them now.
He was silent for a long moment, that dark gaze far too assessing. Chiara fought not to squirm.
Eventually he said, ‘That’s actually two conditions. But very well. I agree.’
Chiara felt light-headed, and her heart palpitated madly as the enormity of what she’d just agreed to sank in, but she told herself she was doing the right thing. The alternative—walking away and never seeing her home again—was unthinkable.
Chiara held out her hand, ‘In that case, you may call me Chiara.’
Nicolo Santo Domenico took her hand in his and Chiara almost jumped out of her skin at the electric shock.
He squeezed her hand firmly and said, ‘And you may call me Nico. I look forward to getting to know you, Chiara.’
Chiara pulled her hand free abruptly, terrified he might see how he affected her. She knew there was a wall behind her, but suddenly she felt as if she took a step back she would be freefalling over that precipice with nothing to hang on to except the triumphant gleam in Nico’s dark eyes.
And it was too late to do anything about it except go forward. And pray that she hadn’t grossly underestimated him. Again.
* * *
A week later, Chiara’s head was still spinning. As soon as she’d made it clear that she would marry Nico, the true extent of his wealth and privilege had become scarily apparent.
There had been a flurry of meetings at the villa with his legal people and her solicitor, who had pulled her aside and wondered if she was quite all right. She’d ascertained that, yes, the bank would take possession of the castello as soon as possible, so she’d found out all she needed to know—this was indeed her only option of retaining any contact with her home. Doing a deal with Nicolo Santo Domenico. A devil with the face of an angel and the body of a bare-knuckle fighter. A self-made billionaire who’d lived a life in pursuit of vengeance. Against her family.
Contracts had been drawn up and signed, and Chiara’s life had been sent spinning in a direction she hadn’t ever anticipated.
She looked at herself now, in the mirror of her bedroom at the castello. She was wearing the wedding dress that had belonged to her paternal grandmother, whom Chiara had loved dearly. Her nonna had shown her the dress before she died and then laid it carefully in its custom-made box, telling Chiara that she would love to think of her wearing it on her wedding day, e
ven though she wouldn’t see her.