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Chiara waved a hand. ‘Can you blame me? All I’ve seen is evidence of how ruthless you are. But even I hadn’t considered you could be this ruthless.’ She could feel hysteria building and had to breathe to calm herself.

Nico started towards her and then he stopped. Colour slashed across his cheeks and to Chiara’s eternal shame, in spite of her anger and humiliation, she could feel her body yearning for his again.

‘Last night... I wasn’t thinking clearly. Of course I didn’t intend for you to get pregnant. But as we are married, and I told you part of our deal was having heirs, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, would it?’

Yes, it would, thought Chiara. Because even though she knew she would feel a fierce love and protectiveness for her baby, she didn’t want it to happen like this. In a confusing blur of lust and mindlessness. She hadn’t intended for that to happen at all! And yet it had...

She said starkly, ‘Last night was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened.’

‘I never lied to you about wanting a real and practical marriage, Chiara.’

She backed away from the table, thinking of all the emotions that had been flowing through her the previous night. Thinking of how she’d felt when she’d woken. At peace. Sated. Optimistic.

Her grand plan that he would be in New York by now, realising what a mistake he’d made, lay in tatters at her feet. Thanks to her

weakness and susceptibility. Her deep-seated wish to believe in some romantic fantasy.

‘I should never have agreed to this marriage. It was a mistake.’ Feeling desperate, she added, ‘I want an annulment.’

He shook his head. ‘It’s too late. The marriage is consummated.’

Chiara’s gut churned as suspicion turned to certainty. ‘You seduced me on purpose.’

Of course he had! He was ruthless enough to cover all the bases. All he’d had to do was compliment her once or twice, make her feel as if she was the only woman on the planet, and she’d melted in a puddle at his feet. He’d played her like a fiddle, and her virginity had made it so much easier.

His expression was closed off. ‘I seduced you because I wanted you.’

Chiara emitted a semi-hysterical laugh. ‘Conveniently enough on our wedding night.’

And without using protection!

Nico picked up his tablet. ‘My plane is waiting to take me to Rome. We can continue this discussion later.’

When he would undoubtedly try to seduce her again?

Chiara mocked herself. He wouldn’t have to try. If he so much as touched her she’d go up in flames.

He started to leave the kitchen and then he turned to face her. ‘Chiara, there will be many more benefits to this marriage than most. We are under no illusions about feelings and we both share a love for this castello and want to see it restored. The fact that we have chemistry is a bonus and will make this easier.’

And then he was gone.

Chiara heard the faint roar of an engine throttle and then silence. She sat down heavily in the chair and stared into the space he’d just left unseeingly.

She couldn’t believe she’d been so utterly naive. And yet how had her life in the castello, being sheltered and overprotected, ever prepared her for something like this? For a man like Nicolo Santo Domenico?

She had to face the very stark fact that she’d merely replaced her parents as gatekeepers with her new husband, who clearly had no intention of letting her have a life outside the castello.

Her hand went to her belly again. She could be pregnant. Already. And she could imagine him greeting that news with a smug satisfaction that the Santo Domenicos were on their way back to domination.

All Chiara was to Nico was a pawn. And the worst thing about it was that he’d never tried to dress it up as anything else.

But last night had given Chiara a glimpse into another part of herself. She’d become a woman. And for a moment she’d believed there was something between them. She’d indulged in a vision of a real marriage. And she’d been utterly, astoundingly naive.

Last night might have been a sensual revelation for Chiara. But for Nicolo—no matter what he’d said about chemistry—it had to have been a very pedestrian experience. She’d given him a tool with which to coerce her to commit to this marriage fully. And that tool was her own weakness.

Chiara could see the future stretching out before her. She would be endured. Much as her father had endured her, disappointed that she wasn’t a boy. She realised now that her fear of leaving the castello was far less than her fear of getting lost completely in the whirlwind of Nicolo Santo Domenico’s life. Of finding herself pregnant and trapped for ever with a man who saw her only as a pawn. Never mind herself—she couldn’t do that to an innocent child.

A sense of panic gripped her. She wasn’t pregnant. She couldn’t be. Life wouldn’t be so cruel.