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Chiara shook her head as if to try and clear it. ‘You’re talking about a project manager, not a wife. How could you propose to bring heirs...children...into a loveless marriage like that?’

Something caught his eye behind her and he strode over to a small table and picked up a framed photo of her and her parents. He held it up, his lip curling contemptuously. ‘Are you expecting me to believe you were a blissfully happy family?’

Chiara squirmed inwardly. She and her mother were smiling, but her father had that look of perpetual disappointment on his face.

Hating Nicolo Santo Domenico with a ferocity that shocked her, she went over and took the picture out of his hand, saying, ‘We weren’t perfectly harmonious, but we were happy in our own way.’

Liar, whispered an inner voice.

Chiara put the picture down and moved out of the man’s dangerous proximity.

He said coolly, ‘You’ve just proved my point. There’s no such thing as a harmonious family. Surely it’s better for children to grow up in an environment where they see their parents working as a team, with mutual respect, rather than something as ephemeral as love?’

‘But how can you say you’d respect me?’

‘I personally have no grudge against you, Chiara, in spite of what you may think. My father and every generation before him grew up despising the Carusos for what they did. They were emotional about it and that’s why they failed to get anywhere. My success came from taking out the emotion.’

He’d cut out emotions long ago. The day he’d found his lover in bed with his best friend.

Nico and his friend had been about to sign a lucrative deal with one of Naples’s biggest entrepreneurs, but his girlfriend had believed his friend to be the one instrumental in the deal and so had seduced him in a bid to feather her nest.

She’d begged forgiveness when she’d realised her mistake, but Nico had cut her out of his life and embraced that cold focus ever since.

Chiara Caruso was not the kind of woman who would arouse disturbing emotions or passions. She was perfect.

He said, ‘As much as I’m restoring the Santo Domenico name to where it belongs, I’m also proposing this for sound business reasons. This region of Sicily has been woefully neglected and is full of potential. My plans go far beyond this estate. I’ve already bought all the neighbouring land. I see you as an asset to this estate, Chiara. You’ll be invested in it and in its success in a way that no other woman could be.’

Chiara looked at the man and realised the extent of his ruthlessness. Even if she didn’t agree to marry him—and of course she wasn’t going to marry him!—she had no doubt he would do everything he’d just said. Including marrying someone for convenience and heirs. All she represented to him was a means to get to his destination faster.

She stood up. ‘I don’t understand why it has to be marriage—you could offer me a deal to buy the castello before the bank gets involved.’

‘That was my plan originally. But since coming here...meeting’s changed. Now the stakes are higher, and I’m offering you an opportunity to stay in your home.’

As your chattel, thought Chiara, shocked at the lengths to which he would go, the depth of his need for vengeance.

She refused to let him see how intimidated she was. ‘Well, as of this moment, I’m still the owner of the castello, Signor Santo Domenico, and quite frankly you’re the last man on this earth I’d ever think about marrying.’

He looked completely unperturbed. ‘So you’re willing to walk away and never see the castello again? You strike me as the kind of woman who dreamed of getting married and having a family here.’

Chiara flushed all over. Was her innermost fantasy of dispelling the loneliness of this place with a large and loving family so painfully obvious? But in her fantasy she’d meet the love of her life, go travelling, and then return to the castello to live out the life she’d never had here, filling the place with happy sounds and not the echoing silence of her youth.

Feeling exposed, she said tightly, ‘You have no idea what kind of woman I am, signor. Now, if you’ve said your piece, please leave.’

* * *

Once again Nico’s conscience struck when he thought of the freshly dug graves he’d seen in the newer graveyard just a short while before. Perhaps this was evidence of what a life denying your emotions did to you. You became numb to everything except the goal. And the goal was almost in sight.

But something about the shadows under Chiara Caruso’s eyes and the way she held herself made him feel uncomfortable. She looked delicate all of a sudden. Very alone in this huge room, with only an ancient dog for company.

Maybe she was a recluse?

He ignored the spark of curiosity—she was perfect for what he needed in his life, and that was all that mattered.

He took a business card ou

t of his pocket and held it out. With palpable reluctance she reached out and took it from him. Nico noticed that she had small graceful hands. Unvarnished practical nails. His body stirred against his will, an image of those hands reaching out to touch his naked flesh surprising him with its vividness.

He gritted his jaw. ‘Those are all my numbers, including my private one. I’m staying at a villa not far from here till tomorrow lunchtime. You have until then to consider my offer. If I don’t receive a call I’ll assume you’re not interested.’