She regretted setting the table down here now. It felt too intimate, all of a sudden. Too exposing.
‘I thought we’d eat down here, but I can set the table in the dining room if you’d prefer.’
He glanced at the table and a look of something almost like fear came over his face before it returned to neutral. ‘No, here is fine.’
Chiara served the stew into two big bowls and brought them over to the table. Now she really regretted not going upstairs, to the more formal dining room where Nico had undoubtedly been eating for the last few months.
Nico ate some stew and tore off a piece of the crusty bread that Chiara had decided to serve with it. The ultimate comfort food. Now she felt even more exposed. Nico would no doubt be assessing her and thinking that this was where her extra pounds came from.
But then he said, ‘This is very good. How did you learn to cook?’
Chiara poured a glass of Chianti for Nico and sparkling water for herself. ‘My nonna taught me. My father’s mother.’
Nico ate more of the stew, and then glanced at her. ‘How long were you without staff here?’
‘For about the last five years.’
‘That’s a long time to be running a property this size on your own.’
She shrugged. ‘We managed.’
He sat back and took up his wine glass. It should have looked ridiculously flimsy in his big hand but it didn’t. ‘And you really didn’t know about the history of this place?’
Chiara dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and shook her head. ‘No idea.’
She put the napkin down again and forced herself to meet Nico’s eye.
‘Although if what you say about my father turning your father away that time is true, he must have known. He was always paranoid about security and privacy. I think that was one of the reasons he insisted on home-schooling me even after I got better. Maybe he didn’t want me mixing with the local children in case I heard something.’
‘So you had no friends?’
Chiara felt as if Nico was pulling up a layer of skin and peering underneath to her tender underbelly. A little testily she admitted, ‘Not really, no. I made friends with some of the workers’ children, but their work was usually seasonal and then they’d move on.’
Nico said, ‘When I was young I didn’t have many friends either, actually.’
Chiara stopped her jaw from dropping. A man as dynamic and charismatic as him?
He grimaced slightly. ‘Your father was secretive and overprotective—my father believed we were better than everyone else and that we didn’t deserve to be where we were, in the flats of Naples. Other kids picked up on it and ostracised me. Jeered at me for believing I was better than them. Jeered at me for not having a mother. They knew about the Santo Domenicos and how far we’d fallen. It only made my father more determined that I’d succeed.’
Chiara felt a pang for Nico. She could imagine him as a scrappy kid all too well. Full of hurt and trying to hide it.
‘I had one best friend I trusted with my life...’
‘The one who slept with your girlfriend?’
He took a sip of wine and nodded. ‘For years I blamed her for seducing him—she was very beautiful and knew how to use it.’
Chiara crushed a surge of self-consciousness.
Nico shook his head. ‘But really it was him. I knew he had wanted her from the moment I introduced them. She just took advantage of his weakness for her.’
Chiara asked, as lightly as she could, ‘Did you ever see her again?’
Nico avoided her eye and drained his wine. ‘I’ve bumped into her occasionally. I believe she’s on marriage number two now.’
He stood up then, and put his napkin down on the table. ‘Thank you—that was delicious. Better than most restaurants I’ve eaten in. I have some calls to make... Leave the dishes for Maria. You don’t need to do menial tasks, Chiara, not any more. And in future we’ll eat upstairs.’
Moments ago Chiara had felt that black pang of jealousy, wondering if he still had feelings for his lover, and now she lambasted herself for it.