An incredible sense of disappointment flooded her. She’d refused to believe Nico last night, but she’d woken with that eternal flame of hope inside her, and before she’d seen the note she’d thought to herself that if he said it again...tried to convince her...she might just believe him.
But she’d been right. Evidently he’d given up the pretence and gone back to work. Maybe he was with his solicitors right now, drawing up papers for their divorce?
Just then Sofia awoke, making small mewling sounds, and Chiara reached over and plucked her out of the Moses basket, plumping up the pillows behind her so she could get comfortable for feeding. As Sofia latched on to Chiara’s breast with unerring accuracy and suckled strongly Chiara once again reminded herself that the most important thing was this small baby, and protecting her from whatever fallout lay ahead.
* * *
Nico looked across the lawn to where Chiara was lying in the shade on a sunbed, with Sofia in a pram beside her and another umbrella shading her. She was wearing a strapless swimsuit and she’d never looked more beautiful.
He felt an incredible sense of vulnerability and trepidation. It this didn’t work he truly didn’t know what he would do—for the first time in his life.
Chiara was drowsing in the late-afternoon sun when she sensed Nico’s presence. Just like that. For the first time since she’d given birth there was a stirring deep inside her, and the small hairs stood up on her arms. She opened her eyes and saw he was approaching where she lay, looking fiercely determined.
She scrambled up to a sitting position, pulling a shawl across her bare shoulders.
‘Nico. You’re back.’ He must have been back for a while, because he was dressed in worn jeans and a loose shirt. Rolled-up sleeves. Hair damp from the shower.
He sat down on the lounger beside hers. Too close. Chiara couldn’t breathe for a moment. She wasn’t ready to see him. He’d caught her unawar
‘I said we’d talk when I got back.’
Chiara scooted back nervously. ‘Sofia is due a feed...she’ll wake in a minute.’
‘Stop using our daughter as a defence, Chiara. I’m just asking you to listen to me for a few minutes—is that too much to ask?’
There was a bleak tone to Nico’s voice that she hadn’t heard before and she went still. ‘No, of course not.’
He relaxed marginally and Chiara realised how tense he was.
He ran a hand through his hair and muttered something like, ‘God, this is hard.’ Then he looked at her. ‘I told you I loved you the other evening. And I meant it.’
Chiara opened her mouth but he put up a hand.
‘No. Let me finish. I can appreciate that you might not believe me, given the nature of why and how we married. Given the fact that I’ve done my best to keep you at a distance... But the truth is that I didn’t know how to let you get close. And every time you did it repelled me—because that’s how I deal with any kind of intimacy. My father never showed me affection. My relationship with Alexandra was immature and incredibly selfish. I thought I loved her, so I associated being betrayed with being in love. It took seeing her again—next to you—for me to realise that I’d felt nothing for her. She wounded my ego, nothing else.
‘I think that’s when I fell in love with you—not that I was ready to admit that then. No one had ever defended me before, until you literally stepped in front of me and confronted her. But I wasn’t ready to admit to any feelings other than like and respect. That’s what I told myself when I laid out the reasons why I thought this marriage could work.
‘I knew you wanted more, Chiara, and on some level I think I knew you were in love with me. But in my arrogance I thought that was a good thing—you feeling more for me than I did for you. Which was a joke, because while I was telling myself you loved me I was falling for you and not even aware of it. All I knew was that if I left here for more than two days I had to get back. I couldn’t contemplate desiring another woman ever again. I couldn’t understand how my desire for you got stronger and stronger...why I was falling deeper and deeper.
‘You did beautiful things—like the graveyard, and forcing me to confront my mother. But the emotions you stirred terrified me. It was easier to push you away. So I can understand why you won’t believe me when I say I love you.’ He sighed heavily. ‘And, yes, it did take Sofia’s birth and the terror of thinking I’d lost you to make me finally come to my senses... I needed to almost lose you to find my heart...’
Chiara was stunned into speechlessness. Nico drew a rolled-up sheaf of papers out of his back pocket and handed it to her. She went clammy at the thought that it was divorce papers. That he might have given up on hoping he could convince her.
She said, ‘Nico—’
He put up a hand. ‘Just take a look before you say anything.’
She unrolled the papers and it took a second for her eyes to make out the ornate calligraphy. Slowly she said, ‘These are the deeds to the castello...in the Caruso name.’ She looked at him, not understanding.
‘I needed to do something to convince you. The castello is back in your name. It’s yours. I couldn’t care less any more about my claim on it, because it’s just bricks and mortar. What I care about is here in this garden, not on those deeds.’
And then he pulled a small box out of his jeans pocket. Chiara saw that his hands were trembling. He opened the box and revealed a plain gold band inlaid with tiny glittering emeralds.
‘It’s an eternity ring. Because I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Chiara, being your husband, partner, lover. I want to take you to all those cities and show you the world...’
Chiara was overwhelmed. She shook her head. ‘I don’t....’ She couldn’t speak. Her throat was too tight with emotion.