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‘What happened with your mother?’

Nico turned his face towards her. It felt as if they were in a cocoon as Rome flashed past them outside, its lights winking and fading.

‘What’s my mother got to do with this?’

Chiara heard the warning in his voice but ignored it. She was carrying this man’s child. She needed to know who he was. ‘A lot. She was your mother.’

‘No, she wasn’t. She gave birth to me, but that’s about it. She left when I was only a few days old. Abandoned me and my father.’ He sounded harsh and he turned away, presenting her with his profile.

Chiara’s heart squeezed. She could hear the hurt in Nico’s voice even though she knew he probably wasn’t even aware of it. ‘You never saw her again?’

He was silent for so long she thought he was going to ignore her question, and then he said, ‘She turned up at my office here in Rome a few years ago, asking to see me. I refused.’

Carefully Chiara said, ‘I can understand why you reacted like that...but she might have had something important to say...wanted to explain why she did what she did.’

He turned to look at her again and Chiara almost shrank back at the harsh expression on his face, lit up by the neon lights outside. ‘I have no interest in her explanations, whatever they might be. She is dead to me. This subject is closed.’

She might have had something important to say.

Chiara’s words scored at Nico’s insides like blunt knives. He hated it that he’d felt compelled to respond. To say something. He hated it that he was now thinking of that day when his assistant had come into his office, frowning and saying, ‘There’s a Signora Santo Domenico here to see you—she says she’s your mother.’

At first Nico had been too shocked to respond, and then a sense of sheer anger and hatred had rushed through his system so strong that he’d shaken with it.

He’d stood up and said, ‘Tell her I’m not available and tell her never to return.’

He hadn’t slept properly for a couple of months afterwards, and part of the reason was the guilt he’d had no control over. Exactly the emotion Chiara was provoking now. If anyone should be feeling guilty it was his mother, not him.

They arrived back at Nico’s apartment and he felt wound up in a way that only one or two things could alleviate. Physical exercise or sex. He stood beside Chiara in the lift and saw how she was avoiding looking at her reflection in the mirrored doors.

‘Why won’t you look at yourself?’

She met his eye and he could see her blush. How could she blush? Because she is still little more than a virgin. That thought did not help Nico’s levels of tension. Nor did the confined space, the scent of Chiara’s evocative perfume or her lush body just inches from touching his.

‘I’ve never liked looking at myself. And now... I don’t feel like myself.’ She gestured with a hand to the dress and styling. ‘This isn’t me.’

Tension made Nico’s voice harsh. ‘You’re my wife—this is you now. You’ll just have to get used to it.’

He saw how she paled when the doors opened. Nico felt dangerously close to losing the veneer of civility he’d grown over the years; dangerously close to the raw uneducated teenager he’d once been. All he wanted to do now was to lift Chiara into his arms, strip off that flowing provocative dress and lay her down, bare, on his bed, and then sink into her hot tight body and lose himself in oblivion until he felt focused again.

But she was pregnant. She was out of bounds. He had given her a separate bedroom. He didn’t know if they could make love without harming the baby—this was uncharted territory for him. The fact that he found her even more attractive now was something he had not expected and didn’t know how to navigate. He wasn’t used to holding back.

She turned to face him in the marbled hallway, avoiding his eye. ‘Goodnight, then.’

She turned to leave and Nico said, ‘Wait.’

She stopped and turned around.

Gruffly, he said, ‘You had Princess Milena eating out of the palm of your hand and she’s one of the toughest nuts to crack. You looked beautiful this evening.’

A little flare of pink came back into her cheeks and Nico felt ridiculously light for a second.

‘Thank you.’ She turned around again and left, and Nico stood watching the empty space for a long moment. Then he went

to his bedroom, found some sweats and went to the gym and exercised until he couldn’t breathe. Then he took a cold shower.

Only then, when he was utterly exhausted, did he feel some of the tension leave his body.

* * *

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