Chiara’s heart clenched. She could still recall seeing the awestruck look on Nico’s face just before she’d lost consciousness. She’d never seen that look before.
‘Chiara, we need to talk.’
She shook her head, not at all ready for their inevitable conversation. ‘I’m tired, Nico. Go home. We can talk another time...’
He looked obstinate for a moment, as if he was going to refuse, but then he sighed and said, ‘Fine, I’ll come back later.’
Chiara wanted to tell him not to, but he was already walking out of the room. When he was gone she turned her head away from the door and let a tired tear slip out of her eye.
These last few hours had been a rollercoaster, and she needed to conserve her strength if she was going to do battle with a man who wanted to insist they stay together even though he didn’t love her, and who would use his seductive wiles to manipulate her.
She turned her attention to their daughter and let a rush of maternal love and gratitude for her healthy baby distract from everything.
* * *
When Chiara woke later that day she opened her eyes and automatically checked the cot beside the bed—but it was empty. She lifted her head, panic gripping her for a moment.
But then she saw where her daughter was and blinked. And blinked again. She was cradled in Nico’s arms, and one of his fingers was clutched in a tiny fist. He’d obviously gone home and showered and changed. His hair was still damp and he wore jeans and a polo shirt, and he looked gorgeous.
There was a look of such naked wonder and awe on his face that Chiara almost felt like a voyeur. Still raw after the birth, she had no defence for seeing Nico like this, with their baby. No defence for the evidence that he could feel emotion. Clearly he was in love. Just not with Chiara. And it shamed her that she felt jealous.
She wondered if perhaps she’d been too hasty. Surely if he could love their daughter then she had a duty to try and make their marriage work?
He must have heard her move because he looked up and caught her eye. Immediately his expression blanked. And Chiara knew in that moment that she wasn’t strong enough to do it. To spend a lifetime with a man who didn’t love her. No matter how much he might love their daughter.
All Nico could see was Chiara’s bright green gaze. It left him nowhere to hide, and he wondered if she had witnessed the moment when his heart had swelled so much he’d almost been afraid it would burst, as he looked down at the fragile perfection of his daughter.
Catching her tiny slithery fragile body in his hands when she’d been born had been a truly magical experience—which had turned to one of sheer horror when he’d realised that Chiara wasn’t conscious.
He never wanted to go through that stomach-curdling feeling of terror again. He’d lived and died a hundred deaths in those moments as he’d knelt there, holding the exquisite miracle of his daughter, while also contemplating the bone-numbing terror of Chiara’s unmoving body.
All the emotions he’d shut off for years had come bursting out of his heart, cracking it open and blasting down the walls he’d erected around it to keep himself safe for years. He’d been an idiot to think he could hold back the dam which had been building inside him from the moment he’d laid eyes on Chiara Caruso.
A God he hadn’t acknowledged for a long time had kept Chiara safe. And his daughter. And had answered his fevered prayers.
Feeling more raw than he had ever felt in his life, Nico stood up with Sofia and took her over to Chiara. He desperately felt the need to articulate what was inside him, but didn’t know where to start.
As he handed Sofia into Chiara’s arms he said, ‘Chiara...’
But she looked up at him and said, ‘I need to feed her and then change her.’ She looked down again, dismissing him.
Her words were like a slap. It reminded him painfully of the day when he’d come to the castello to proposition her. When she’d held his card in her hand and refused to meet his eye. He could see now that that had been the moment when she’d touched something much deeper inside him than mere intrigue. He’d been fooling himself all along.
He tried again. ‘Chiara...’
She looked up. Her face was expressionless. ‘We’re fine. You should go. It’s late.’
Nico felt a very uncharacteristic sense of defeat. He’d met his equal in Chiara, there was no doubt about that. But he also felt a sense of renewed purpose. Now came the most difficult part. Convincing Chiara to listen to him. And, more, to believe him.
* * *
The next day Chiara was let out of hospital with Sofia. Nico took them home in a brand-new family-friendly car, with a newly installed baby seat in the back, where Chiara sat beside Sofia to keep an eye on her.
She knew that sooner or later they’d have to talk. When she felt stronger, she told herself weakly.
When they returned to the castello Chiara felt ridiculously emotional to see all the staff lined up to greet them. Maria was beaming and clucked over Sofia, and even the gardeners looked suspiciously dewy-eyed.
Spiro, faithful as ever, just came up and nudged Chiara’s thigh, telling her he was there. She had noticed that he would invariably gravitate to Nico’s study if she wasn’t around, and she’d often find him there curled up under the table.