Faced with this knowledge of how his family had been left to rot in an overgrown graveyard, on land that should have been returned to them decades before, he felt even less inclined to be merciful.
He walked out of the graveyard into the sun, undoing his tie, feeling constricted. Chiara Caruso had disappeared, and yet strangely he found that her stricken expression and those unusual green eyes stayed with him.
He could still feel her arm under his hand. It had been supple and slim, hinting at a more defined body beneath the shapeless clothes. To Nico’s shock, the awareness had exploded into more than a frisson, and still hummed in his blood. Disconcerting and not welcome. He put it down to his heightened emotions.
He walked over to the edge of a large uncultivated lawn that rolled down to the sea. There were pine trees along one side and gnarled bushes on the other.
It beat in his blood now, gathering force. Anger was still high as he thought of his ancestors lying in their cold graves, ignored and left to moulder.
It was one thing to have an intellectual knowledge that something belonged to you, but another thing entirely to experience it. From the moment he’d driven up towards the castello he’d felt a sense of ownership that went deeper than the sense of injustice he’d grown up with.
He wasn’t usually one to give any credence to intangibles, but right now, for the first time in his life, he felt a sense of home. It was as disconcerting as the awareness he felt for Chiara Caruso. It was also something he’d never thought he’d experience after growing up in Naples and being constantly reminded that it wasn’t his home.
But as he looked out on this view that the Carusos had stolen from the Santo Domenicos, things didn’t feel as clear-cut as they had just a short while before. Nico didn’t want to admit it, but Chiara Caruso’s reaction to the news had seemed like genuine shock. Either that or she was an undiscovered acting genius.
He’d come here today to present her with a deal she couldn’t refuse. A deal that would get him the castello within as short a space of time as possible: offering her enough money to sign over the castello to him and then go far away, somewhere she, the last of the Carusos, would fade into obscurity.
But that growing awareness of her in his blood and in his body was blurring the lines and making him hesitate for a moment.
A recent conversation with his solicitor came into his head, a well-worn refrain...
‘Nico, you’re an outsider, and that has served you well. You’ve made your fortune by upsetting the status quo and punishing those who’ve underestimated you. But now it’s time to consolidate and expand. It’s all very well to be the rogue operator once you have a more respectable life in the background. Right now you’re losing out on deals because people feel they can’t trust you. You’ve no family, nothing to lose...’
Nico scowled at the view. He’d been at an exclusive charity event in Manhattan recently, discussing a deal with one of Manhattan’s titans of construction. The man’s wife had come on to Nico, making her attraction obvious. And, ev
en though Nico had rebuffed her advances, the next day when he’d followed up on a promise to meet and discuss things further, the construction giant had cut off all contact and Nico had lost out on a potentially hugely lucrative deal.
The truth was that he’d had marriage on his mind for some months now. Before his solicitor had even had to say anything it had become evident to Nico that the absence of a wife by his side was damaging his reputation amongst his more conservative peers. And so he’d been facing the unpalatable fact that he should make some adjustments to his very free lifestyle.
To his surprise, the prospect hadn’t been totally repugnant. Nico had lived a hedonistic existence for a long time and, to be perfectly frank, he’d been feeling more and more jaded. Tired of the games women played. Tired of the avaricious gleam in their eyes. Tired of not knowing what their agenda was.
While he might once have appreciated the need for a wife who knew how to navigate that world, the thought of a woman like that made something curdle inside him now. As did the idea of growing old amidst the soaring soulless buildings of New York or London.
That might have been where he’d made his fortune, and restored the Santo Domenico pride and name, but standing here on Sicilian land—the land of his ancestors—he knew that the final piece had to be in this place. Nowhere else.
With the evocative scent of the sea and earth all around him, he found that a new vision was coming to life inside him.
A vision of a future that would help him to achieve the kind of success that he’d only dreamed of up to this point. A vision of a future that included a wife who would give his reputation the sheen of respectability he so badly needed. A wife who would give him a family and breathe the life force back into the Santo Domenico name. A wife who would complement him...who knew the value of legacy.
What he needed was as clear to Nico now as the glittering sea in front of him. It was totally audacious, and contrary to his original plan, but it was taking root inside him and would not be dismissed.
After a few more long minutes Nico turned around to face the castello. The only person who had been standing between him and his future—Chiara Caruso—was now the only person who could make sure it happened.
CHIARA TOOK A sip of the dark golden brandy and winced as it burnt her throat. It was her first time ever taking a drink from the walnut drinks cabinet in the main reception room and she could understand the appeal now, as the alcohol settled in her stomach and radiated a warm, comforting glow.
Her hand still shook, though, and when she heard determined footsteps coming across the stone hall floor beyond the room she put the glass down on a silver tray.
By the time Nicolo Santo Domenico entered the room Chiara’s hands were behind her back and she was as composed as she could be, considering she felt as if she’d just been body-slammed by a ton weight.
He stopped in front of her, too close for comfort.
‘Well? Is that enough proof for you? A graveyard full of my ancestors?’ His voice rang with cold condemnation.
He towered over Chiara and she moved away, across the room, Spiro trotting loyally beside her. She put her hand on the dog’s head, as if he could offer protection or a way out of this madness.