Feeling very exposed, and more vulnerable than ever, she repeated, ‘You have no proof of this.’
He arched a brow. ‘Come with me.’
He strode out of the room, and Chiara just looked after him stupidly before she kicked into gear. The sensation that he somehow belonged here struck her again and it wasn’t welcome.
He walked out of the main door and Chiara had the urge to slam and lock it behind him. But something told her that this man wouldn’t be so easily locked out.
He stopped in the main courtyard of the castello and looked left and right, as if trying to figure something out, and then strode confidently to the left, towards where the family church and graveyard were situated. The graveyard she’d only walked away from a couple of days ago, after seeing her parents interred.
When she realised where he was headed she hurried to catch up and called out, ‘This is ridiculous—you must stop this!’
But he didn’t stop. It was as if he couldn’t hear her. He got closer and closer to the graveyard, but at the last moment veered away from it and walked to another gate nearby, overgrown with foliage.
She arrived behind him, slightly out of breath. ‘What are you looking for? That is the old family plot.’
A place she’d never been into herself, because the housekeeper had used to tell her that it was haunted. A shiver went down Chiara’s spine now. Had the housekeeper known something of this man’s fantastic claims?
He thrust aside the foliage and located the latch on the gate. At this moment he barely resembled a civilised man. She could see his muscles moving under the material of his suit and felt another disconcerting pulse of awareness in her lower body. Totally inappropriate and unwelcome.
He pushed open the gate and said in a grim tone, ‘Come on.’
Chiara had no choice but to follow him into the shadowed and dormant graveyard. Sunlight barely penetrated through the gnarled branches of the trees overhead and it was very still. She picked her way gingerly over the uneven ground, not even sure what she was walking on, hoping it wasn’t graves.
He had reached the far corner and was pulling leaves and branches away from something. When she got closer she saw that it was a headstone. He turned to face her with an intense look on his face, and for a moment she was almost blinded by his sheer raw beauty.
Then he took her arm and said impatiently, ‘Look.’
Chiara stood beside him, very aware of his hand on her arm and the disparity in their sizes. It took her eyes a moment to adjust, but when they did she could make out faint writing, her heart stuttered and stopped as a dawning dread moved through her.
There, etched in the stone, was the following:
Tomasso Santo Domenico,
born and died at
Castello Santo Domenico,
She couldn’t believe it. Castello Santo Domenico. Not Castello Caruso.
‘He was my great-great-grandfather.’
Chiara looked around, and now she could see the unmistakable shapes of headstones underneath foliage all around her. They seemed to loom at her accusingly in the gloom. The space closed in on her and claustrophobia rose swiftly. She pulled free of Nicolo Santo Domenico’s grip and turned and made her way out, her skin clammy with panic.
She almost tripped over a mound, and a small sob came out of her mouth, but then finally reached the gate and stepped into bright comforting sunshine, her head reeling.
* * *
Nico stood in the overgrown graveyard, only vaguely aware that Chiara had all but run out of the graveyard. This proof of his family’s legacy was almost too much to take in.
Standing in that grand room just a few moments ago, facing a stricken-looking Chiara Caruso, he’d actually felt a sliver of doubt. Could this grand, crumbling estate really have belonged to his family? Had they truly once been the most powerful family in southern Sicily? It had seemed almost too much to believe when all he could think of was his grandfather’s bitter countenance and then his father’s. Maybe they’d dreamed it up, frustrated by the struggles they’d faced. Their fall from grace.
But, no. This graveyard was cold, hard evidence that that they had existed in this place. That they had once lived, loved and died here. His ancestors had built it, stone by stone.
A cold sense of satisfaction filled Nico’s bones. He had a right to claim this place now. He was right to be here.
He knew it wasn’t necessarily compassionate to confront Chiara Caruso just days after her parents’ funeral, but he’d never been accused of having compassion.