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‘I like you, Chiara. I respect you... You helped me to achieve a long-held ambition and dream—to restore the castello to the Santo Domenico name. You’re giving me a child. We have insane chemistry, and we want each other—which is more than can be said for a lot of those couples we saw at the party this evening. I think we have a lot going for us. I think we can be happy.’

Chiara sucked in a deep breath. She hadn’t been expecting Nico to be so honest. It was heartening and also quietly devastating. He was telling her not to get her hopes up. Not to wish for more.

That woman Alexandra had hurt him a long time ago, and maybe seeing her again this evening had reinforced his own walls of defence. They were impenetrable.

What could she say? Except, ‘Okay...we’ll do our best to make it work.’

Nico reached across the table and took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. In spite of the heaviness in her heart Chiara felt the familiar burn of desire and saw it in his eyes too. She knew that no matter what he said, or how hard she tried, that little flame of hope wouldn’t die out completely...not yet.

Her emerald engagement ring glinted at her mockingly and Chiara turned her hand away so she couldn’t see it.

* * *

Chiara had taken off her shoes in the car on the way back and when they reached the castello Nico insisted on carrying her from the car, in spite of her sleepy protests. But by the time they reached the bedroom Chiara was wide awake—and very aware of Nico, and the way his jaw was stubbled after a day’s growth.

Nico put her down and turned on a couple of lamps—just enough to see. He came and stood behind her in front of the mirror, where she was trying to reach the back of the dress.

‘Let me.’

She took her hands down and felt him find the zip and pull it down to just above her buttocks. She shivered minutely.

‘Cold?’ he asked disingenuously. It was the height of summer.

She wanted to scowl, but when she looked at him in the mirror her heart stopped. He was so dark...and towering over her. She shook her head.

He smirked. ‘I didn’t think so.’

He pushed the dress off her shoulders and then tugged it all the way over her hips, so it fell to the floor in a swish of silk and chiffon. Now she wore only a strapless bra, that barely contained her breasts, and panties.

Nico undid her bra and that fell away too, releasing her breasts. Chiara wanted to turn her head away, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was bending his head now, pressing a kiss to where her neck met her shoulder, and she shuddered as a wave of desire raced through her body.

He stood up and put his hands on her shoulders. ‘Look at yourself, cara, you’re beautiful.’

Reluctantly, Chiara looked at herself, and watched Nico undo her hair and loosen it so that it fell over one shoulder, almost touching her breast.

His hands came around and cupped her breasts and she caught her breath. She could see her nipples peak into hard points, her skin flushing with arousal.

Her belly was a perfect rounded curve and Nico’s hand moved down, over her belly and lower, under her underwear. She couldn’t breathe.

‘Keep looking at yourself.’

It was a command that Chiara had to obey. One of Nico’s hands was on her breast, kneading the tender flesh, finding a nipple and tweaking it, and his other hand was between her legs, fingers seeking and exploring right into the heart of her, where she was hot and damp and aching.

Her legs opened to give him more access. She groaned and bit her lip, unable to take her eyes off what he was doing to her. He was winding her tighter and tighter, his clever, merciless fingers moving in and out until she couldn’t stop a gasp of shock as she exploded in a spasm of pleasure so intense her legs turned to jelly.

Nico finally turned her quivering body around and hauled her into him before kissing her senseless.

After a long moment, when she aftershocks of pleasure had finally diminished, Nico pulled back. He smoothed Chiara’s hair back from her brow and said, ‘See? This...this is all we need.’

Chiara was too spent to argue, and when he laid her down on the bed and pulled the sheet over her she let sleep claim her, obscuring the fact that she knew pain would be an inevitable part of living with Nico because she was in love with him.

* * *

Nico looked down at Chiara sleeping, and even though his own body throbbed with sexual frustration he didn’t mind. It had been intensely erotic, watching her fall to pieces around his hand and fingers like that, through the mirror.

Seeing Alexandra earlier had been a shock. It was always a shock. Except this time Nico had truly resented her intrusion on a private moment. And when she’d started to attack Chiara it had taken him a couple of seconds to realise that Chiara had stepped up to her, confronted her. He hadn’t noticed because he’d been so blinded by rage.

A kind of rage he couldn’t remember feeling before. Not even when he’d found Alexandra in bed with his friend.

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