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Chiara had inherited her body shape from her grandmother so the dress fitted almost perfectly. It was a little threadbare in places, but it was still surprisingly pristine. Made of Sicilian lace, it had long sleeves and a high collar. It was demure, and yet Chiara felt very exposed when she noted how it clung almost indecently to her body, showing off her too large bust and hips.

But there was nothing she could do about it now. She was due to go to the castello chapel and marry Nicolo Santo Domenico at any moment now.

He had offered to buy her a dress and hire professional stylists, but she’d refused. She’d eventually agreed for him to enlist the help of a couple of local girls, and one of them approached Chiara now with the matching veil for the dress. She’d pulled her hair back in its habitual style and it fell loose and wavy down her back—she’d given up any attempt to tame it.

They attached the veil low on the back of her head and pulled it over her face, almost obscuring her vision.

Chiara had seen the looks the girls had exchanged as they’d helped her dress, but she didn’t care. She knew this wasn’t a real wedding, and if her aim was to make Nico regret marrying her as soon as possible then this was the way to go.

They’d barely exchanged two words all week as the preparations had taken over and Chiara had felt ridiculously relieved—even though she knew it was futile to think she could avoid her husband once they were married.

But, thankfully, it looked as if he was as reluctant as she for them to spend any time together. He’d told her as much during one of their brief conversations, saying, ‘I will have to return to New York almost immediately to oversee a merger. There won’t be time for a honeymoon.’

She’d responded with relief. ‘I don’t expect a honeymoon—this isn’t a real marriage.’

He’d looked at her for a moment, as if he was about to say something else, but then they’d been interrupted and Chiara had taken the opportunity to escape.

Soon, she reassured herself, he would be back in New York, where he would be indelibly reminded of the kind of woman he preferred. By the time he returned to Sicily he would have decided to divorce Chiara and she could negotiate her terms.

She’d already checked with her solicitor and he’d assured her that once they were married, no matter what the contracts said, she would have rights as Nico’s wife. That was all she needed to know.

The two girls stepped back. There was a knock on the door and a voice.

‘Signorina, they are ready.’

Chiara sucked in a breath and tried to quash the ominous feeling that her confidence in predicting the swift demise of this marriage was all too shaky. She’d underestimated Nico before. But this was her only option—unless she wanted to take off the dress, pack it up and walk out of the castello for good.

She closed her eyes briefly, sending up a swift plea for a speedy resolution to all of this, and then she opened them again and turned around to face her destiny.

* * *

Nico was surprised at how on edge he felt as he waited for Chiara to appear at the entrance to the castello chapel. There was only a handful of guests. Her solicitor and his own legal team. There was no great pretence that this was anything other than a marriage of convenience.

Chiara had been surprisingly co-operative once she’d agreed to marry him, signing every contract put under her nose after brief consultation with her solicitor. In fact she’d been so amenable, particularly about the clauses that dictated how much of his fortune she’d receive if they ever divorced—she’d barely even looked at that part—that he’d had to instruct his own team to go through them again with a fine-tooth comb in case they’d missed something.

He’d given in to her demand of a six-month trial period, but he was confident enough to presume that by the time six months had passed she would be reluctant to give up her new lavish lifestyle.

But a small, annoying inner voice reminded Nico that Chiara had turned down all his offers for clothes, a dress...stylists. How ironic, he thought now, to have apparently found the one woman in the world who truly appeared to have no designs on his wealth—a member of the very family that had stolen his birthright!

There was a movement at the doorway and he narrowed his gaze. When she appeared, though, he wasn’t prepared for the punch to his solar plexus. She should have looked ridiculous in the old-fashioned wedding dress, so traditional that it must have been made in the last century. And yet its sheer simplicity robbed Nico of any coherent thought for a moment as Chiara started to walk down the aisle.


And if there was something about that lonely image that sparked some answering echo inside Nico, he denied it immediately.

Quite frankly, he was too distracted by the way the dress effortlessly showcased the full extent of Chiara’s curves. The Venus de Milo made flesh. He even saw one of his legal team’s eyes widen at the sight of her, and felt a rush of something very hot and possessive. Crazy.

If Nico hadn’t been so acutely aware of what he was doing and where he was, he might have imagined himself to have slipped back in time some hundred years.

An ornate lace veil framed her face and dark hair. There was a small bouquet of flowers in her hands. When she finally reached his side he caught the delicate scent of wild flowers and earth...the sea. It was evocative and surprisingly sensual.

He turned to face the altar and was reminded again of how petite she was next to him. She reached his shoulder at the most. The priest started to speak, but the words washed over Nico as he realised that he had to restrain himself from reaching out to pull the veil up to see her face.

‘I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.’

Nico turned to face Chiara, overcome with a sense of anticipation he never would have expected to feel for his convenient bride, no matter how much she might stir his blood.

Her head was down-bent and he reached for the veil, pulling it up and over her head. He willed her to look up at him and finally she did. He sucked in a breath. No make-up. Just clear fresh skin and those remarkable eyes. Long dark lashes. And her mouth... Had it always been so full?