But he wasn’t nothing any more. He had singlehandedly pulled himself out of the streets of Naples and achieved stunning success, and now he was finally ready to reclaim his family’s heritage from the people who had stolen it so many years ago.
His one regret was that his father hadn’t lived to see the castello returned. That he hadn’t lived to see where his ancestors were buried and pay his respects. His father had come here once, with his own father’s ashes, and asked if he could scatter them in the family plot, but he’d been turned away like a beggar.
Nico would never forget the humiliation etched into his father’s face and the rage burning in his eyes.
He’d said to Nico that day, ‘Promise me you’ll walk through those gates one day and reclaim our legacy...promise me.’
And here he was, finally on the verge of fulfilling that promise—except much to Nico’s frustration he wasn’t feeling exactly satisfied. He was distracted by the realisation that Chiara Caruso’s eyes were a very light green. And that she wasn’t perhaps as plain as he’d first thought. She was...intriguingly fresh-faced. Untouched. He was used to women covered in so many layers of artifice, or filled with so many chemicals, it was hard to know what they looked like underneath it all.
She shook her head now, frowning. ‘What are you talking about? This castello can’t belong to you. It’s belonged to my family for hundreds of years.’
Anger made Nico’s voice tight. ‘Are you sure about that?’
Suddenly she seemed hesitant. ‘Well, of course...’
‘Perhaps you’re an expert denier of history, like your father was. Are you really expecting me to believe that you aren’t aware of what happened?’
She went pale. ‘Leave my father out of this. How dare you appear on my doorstep with some fantastical tale?’ She stood back and extended her arm towards the door. ‘I’d like you to leave now. You are not welcome here.’
For a moment Nico’s conscience pricked again, he thought that perhaps he should leave and at least allow her a period of private mourning before returning in a couple of days. But then he registered her words: you are not welcome here. Exactly the same words her father had said to his father when he’d tried to gain access to the family burial plot.
Nico planted his legs wide. He wasn’t going anywhere.
The dog standing beside her emitted another pathetic growl.
He said, ‘I’m afraid that it’s you who is not welcome here. Not for much longer anyway. It’s merely a matter of time before the bank moves to take possession.’
* * *
Chiara stared at this man who looked as immovable as a stone statue. Against every instinct, her curiosity was aroused. Maybe he wasn’t mad—maybe he believed what he was saying.
‘What gives you the right to say such things...that the castello belongs to you?’
‘Because it’s true. My family built it in the seventeenth century.’
Chiara wanted to shake her head, as if that might make order out of what he was saying. She’d known the castello was old—especially some parts of it—but not that old.
He went on. ‘At that time the Santo Domenicos owned this estate and all the land and villages from here to Syracuse.’
What he was talking about was a huge swathe of land, and if it were true—Chiara shook her head. It couldn’t be. ‘My family have been the sole owners of this castello for as long as I know—our name is above the door, etched in stone.’
He dismissed that with a curl of his lip. ‘Anyone can carve words into a slab of stone. Your family took ownership of this castello before the Second World War. The Carusos were the Santo Domenico family’s accountants. When we were in financial difficulty they agreed to bail us out, using the castello as collateral, the agreement being that as soon as we had the money again we would buy the castello back at an agreed price. Then came the war.
‘After the war, your family made the most of the chaos at that time. They claimed to have no knowledge of the agreement and destroyed all the paperwork, saying our claims were bogus. So many people were trying to reclaim ownership of land and possessions after the war that the authorities chose to believe that we were being opportunistic. We were a powerful family, and some were only too happy to see us brought down and destroyed.’
‘The war decimated our savings—we lost everything. We became destitute. Your family refused to negotiate or to give us a chance to regain our property. Our very proud Sicilian family was scattered. Most emigrated to the United States. We ended up in Naples. My grandfather refused to leave Italy, always hoping he’d see our lands returned before he died. As did my father. Both were thwarted.’
Chiara struggled to take this in. ‘You can’t have proof of this. I’ve never heard mention of the Santo Domenicos in my life.’
He cast her a jaundiced look. ‘I don’t believe that. Our story is part of local legend around here.’
Chiara flushed when she thought of her very sheltered upbringing. Their housekeeper—before she’d been let go in recent years—had done all the shopping, and her father had gone into the village for supplies since then. Whenever Chiara had ventured out she had noticed the way peo
ple looked at her, and she’d burned with self-consciousness because she’d assumed they were judging her less than fashionable clothes and figure.
However, if there was any grain of truth to this man’s claims, perhaps they’d been judging more than her appearance.