What Her Sicilian Husband Desires
She thought their marriage was over…
but it’s just beginning!
Innocent Chloe Stapleton married powerful magnate Lao Monteleone for protection after her father’s death. They’ve lived separate lives since. So, when Chloe is summoned to his breath-taking Sicilian Castello, she expects him to demand a divorce. But her husband demands the opposite — an heir!
Chloe’s attraction to Lao has always simmered beneath the surface, strictly forbidden in their in-name-only union! And while she wants to trust Lao with her body, and her lonely heart, accepting his terms would mean her total, all-consuming surrender…
- ROMANTIC THEMES: Best Friend's Little Sister Heroine, Bluestocking Heroine, Fake Relationship, Fantasies Made Real, Friends to Lovers, Guardian/Ward, Heroine On the Run, High Society, Italian Hero, Marriage in Trouble, Marriage of Convenience, Pregnant Heroine, Sicilian Hero, Stepbrother Hero, Stepsister Heroine, Virgin Heroine
What Her Sicilian Husband Desires
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It was a beautiful day for a divorce.
Chloe Stapleton smiled to herself as the private jet winged its way down over the mountains of Sicily that rose up from the gleaming Mediterranean Sea, jutting proudly high and covered in sprawling vineyards and crumbling old temples to honor gods long lost.
That felt appropriate too.
She kept her gaze trained out through the window as the plane came in for a brisk landing on a remote hilltop strip, carved into the mountains with a certain brutal efficiency that reminded her of the owner of not only the plane, but the landing strip too. And the whole bloody mountain, the better part of Sicily, not to mention an ever-widening swath of the whole wide world beyond.
For there was no part of the planet, however isolated and far away, that the might and power of the Monteleone family did not reach.
Chloe was already feeling a bit nostalgic that she was very shortly going to be asked to resign from her place as one of them.
Or rather, one of them in name only, she amended.
She had been to this estate only once before. Five years ago, when she hadn’t known what to do, so she’d reached out to the darkly powerful man who had once been her stepbrother to beg him for help.
He had been her only hope—and Lao Monteleone had not hesitated. She always thought of him as a smooth coil of a man, forever holding himself back from the unwary—which only made his ruthless ferocity all the more apparent. When she knew, as did the world, that he did exactly what suited him when and how he liked.
But he had always been kind to her, if distant.
She had come all the way here five years ago, banking on that kindness, and Lao had not let her down.
As she stepped out of the plane and allowed his always excruciatingly well-trained staff to usher her into the waiting car, she could admit that Lao’s kindness—and the protection he had offered her immediately—had made her feel safe when she hadn’t believed she would ever feel such a thing again. She would never forget that.
In the darkest hour of her grief, when she had lost her father and with him, the one person who had always loved her and championed her in all things, Lao had stepped in. He had taken care of everything, allowing Chloe to take care of herself.
It was truly bittersweet to return here today, knowing full well that this must be the end of that safety. That she would need to find a way to be her own safe space from here on out.
Surely this is simply called learning to be an adult, Chloe told herself stoutly. Get a hold of yourself, girl.
She tried to brush the strange melancholy away as the car took her down from the landing strip on narrow track roads that wound around the exuberantly wild mountains, giving her sweeping views of the ancient Sicilian cities down near the water and the many historic villages tucked into the hills. Back home in London, the weather was predictably vile, making the sunshine appear even more bountiful here. It seemed like a blessing, pouring down through the trees and making the leaves gleam brightly as she drove through.
Even five years ago, when she had still felt so inside out in the face of her father’s loss, it had been impossible not to notice the beauty of this untamed island. While she had spent many holidays in the more refined parts of Italy before then—the hills of Tuscany, the canals of Venice, the beaches of the Amalfi Coast—she had never come to Sicily before or since. And it made that nostalgia within her seem to ache all on its own to find it just as she remembered it. A wild tangle, not quite civilized, and in no way as manicured as the Italy thought she knew.
But then, the same could be said for Lao himself.
He had married her here five years ago, quickly and without ceremony. It had been more like a business meeting than a wedding, she thought, though at the time it had pleased her, for it was a demonstration of his kindness. They’d stood together in Lao’s office, here on this mysterious island in the ancient castle he had renovated and made the base of his operations.
The castle, he had informed her offhandedly five years ago, that had been in the Monteleone family for some untold number of centuries. That had made their marriage seem even more like a safe haven, she’d thought then. As if all of those centuries, steeped in Monteleone might and power and influence, would cocoon her, too.
She supposed it had.
When Chloe thought back to that day, it was all tearstained and blurry. She had the impression of Lao’s steel gray eyes and his powerful form, so much broader and taller than she was. As if he intended to block out the sky if that was what she wished. And the way he held her pale hands in his, belting out the appropriate words.
A marriage such as this, naturally, will be in name only, he had told her in that powerfully grim way of his.
Naturally, she had murmured in reply.
And it was between her and the dreams she’d never shared with another living soul that she might have found that just the slightest bit insulting. That there had been a part of her, even then, even so lost in the terrible clenching fist of that grief had not left her for another year or so, that had been…not exactly insulted that Lao had not even bothered to seal their marriage with a kiss. That he had glared at the priest as if even requesting such a thing was an affront.
She hadn’t been insulted, of course she hadn’t in the face of his going so far above and beyond any possible duty he might have felt, but she had felt ever so slightly indignant all the same.
But that was pure silliness and well did she know it.
What mattered, as she intended to make certain she told Lao when she saw him, was that it was a gift. All of it, when he’d owed her nothing. When he could so easily have refused to even see her that day. He had given her the gift of his protection, and her silly, foolish little fantasies were a secret she would take with her to her grave.
The car turned in through an imposing gate, flanked by ancient bits of marble, though the gate itself was decidedly modern and clearly high-tech. Once through that gate, the dirt track became smoother, so there was less jolting and jumping, and she no longer needed to grip the handle in the back seat so tightly.
Chloe settled in as the car headed up the drive toward the man—the husband, mad word though it was to describe either Lao or his relationship to her—waiting for her. Cypress trees marched in dutiful columns on either side of the lane, olive trees were set into neat lines down the flank of a rolling hill, and she could catch glimpses of the cultivated Monteleone land in all directions. But it was the old castle that made her hold her breath when she caught sight of it, rising in its ancient, imposing way there at the top of Lao’s own, private mountain.
The place where he had taken the sobbing mess she’d been, married her, then set her free to do as she liked.
“As your father would have wished,” he had told her, almost formerly, in the brief moments they’d stood together after the quick ceremony.
And so Chloe had spent these years that Lao had gifted her doing her best to find her own place in the world because that, she knew, was what her father would have wanted for her if it had been up to him. If he’d been here to listen to her stories and laugh away her hurts until they felt minor.
But the truth was that she’d always been a bit too dreamy. Maybe a better word was sheltered, but either way, she’d drifted from one job to another, forever trying to find her passion. She’d done a bit of literary PR, because it had sounded so grand to swan about London, talking of books to whoever would listen. But the job hadn’t worked out that way. It was much less about talking, very little about loving books at all, and a whole lot more about tracking campaigns across the internet and avoiding angry emails from authors. She’d dipped in and out the charities and nonprofits that a great many of her school friends were involved in. But they all seemed to be more about being photographed at parties than actually doing any good in the world. None of her friends had understood when she tried to tell them how she felt.
It does good in the world, her best friend Mirabelle had argued with a roll of her lacquered eyes. People like to look at pretty things, Chloe. Why not be one of them?
Chloe had eventually ended up working in an art gallery, which she found fun. Because the gallery was filled mostly by the sorts of people who enjoyed making the most spectacular mountains out of any given molehill.
“That’s how you convince a rich man with no taste to buy a splatter of paint on a crap canvas to bung up on the guest room wall,” her jaded boss, the sleek and slinky Moriah, had told her.
Maybe, Chloe had started to think, she was onto something with the art world. Because, at the very least, she wasn’t as bored as she’d been in publicity. Surely that was worth something. Maybe it wasn’t her passion, but then, maybe it was deeply unsophisticated to spend so much time worrying about finding something no one else seemed to care about or value at all.
Maybe she needed to worry more about upping her sophistication game, she’d been thinking in the days before she’d received Lao’s summons.
Strange, then, that the only thing she could seem to think about as the car wound ever closer to Castello Monteleone was passion, after a fashion. She was already working on her arguments. The same way she did every time she received a summons from Lao in whatever city they both happened to be in, because he always knew where she was. Once, memorably, she’d met up with him on a beach in Brazil. He usually took her for a meal, quizzed her on her life and plans as if he was taking over the role of her father and guardian despite being her legal husband, and then left her reeling in the wake of all of that rampant virility, and seething, incalculable power.
She always had the dreams after those dinners.
But this was the first summons she’d received to the castle in all this time. Chloe had known the minute she’d received it that it could only mean one thing.
The one thing she’d known would come, sooner or later.
Lao had given her the gift of these five years, held securely there between his might and influence.
It was high time she stood on her own two feet, however unsophisticated. She knew that.
But knowing it didn’t make those feet seem any more steady or sophisticated when the car pulled up to the castle’s grand entrance, and his staff swung the door open to wave her out.
She was dearly tempted to crumple into a swoon like one of her favorite heroines from a book, but she didn’t.
Because that would be taking advantage. And would cheapen, somehow, the care Lao had taken of the truly beset girl who had shown up here in pieces the last time, uninvited and wholly uncertain if she’d make it through the week.
She made herself smile at the poker-faced servant who held the car door for her, and again at the extensively trained butler who bowed her into the castle’s great hall before personally leading her deep within.
Chloe wasn’t much for architecture, and she hadn’t paid much attention to her surroundings five years ago, but she could see now that this place was a true wonder. No doubt it helped to have all the money in the world, but she thought that Lao must have a particularly keen eye for detail as well. Because he had taken this ancient castle and made it a showpiece of timeless style and incomparable grace. There were stone walls all around, complete with ancient hung tapestries and priceless art in museum-quality frames. At the same time, there were also boldly modern steel girders and the feeling of brightness, airiness, and more windows than there could possibly have been originally. She had read once, after visiting this place the first time, that he had essentially taken a ruin that had stood on the property for generations—instead of the family villa that was stationed somewhere else on the land—and transformed it into his own personal palace.
A feat of architectural time travel, the article writer had gushed. A heady, dizzying example of taste and vision, refinement taken to perfection.
Yet when she thought of those words, she pictured Lao himself, not the castle that loomed all around her now.
The butler led her over the glassed-in bridge that spanned a deep crevice winnowed into the side of the mountain, allowing her to gaze down for what seemed like miles. She felt a shiver start deep within her, winding around and around with every step until it took her over. She could feel the goose bumps all over her skin. And when they reached the other side and found themselves in another hall, she could see the way her skin bristled as they walked along what seemed like an entire wall of antique mirrors. Chloe took the opportunity to smooth down her hair and straighten the clothes she’d worn on the flight down from London this morning.
She’d dressed for her imposing husband, despite the fact that he was soon to be her ex.
Because no matter what he was to her, he had always rendered her a bit breathless. Whether he was wearing a dark bespoke suit in the grim rain of a London summer or lounging beachside in Brazil with an indolence she hadn’t been able to look at directly.
Or maybe it was less the indolence that had been so blinding and more the acres upon acres of lean, golden muscles that had been on display, with the dusting of dark black hair, and that entrancing V etched into his lower abdomen that led the eye directly to one of those astonishingly small bathing costumes stretched to capacity over his—
But thinking of that meeting in Brazil made her cheeks burn. She couldn’t recall a single word he’d said. It was possible she hadn’t spoken at all, but had merely been sat there in a tumultuous daze.
Thinking only of the color blue.
The color of that bathing costume.
It haunted her still.
And again, Chloe found herself smiling at her own silliness as the butler murmured something she didn’t quite catch, then beckoned for her to precede him into the room she remembered so well.
She had been married here, on this edge-of-the-cliff office that could only be called such a thing because there was a desk on one end, surrounded by crisp white bookshelves, all of them filled—but not bursting. Every item on every shelf was precisely placed just so. But then, everything in this part of the castle was new, from the poured concrete floor tossed here and there with rich, deeply hued artisanal rugs, and the grand wall of windows that aped the castle next door, but were all in glass.
It was there, standing before that glass that she knew gave way to the cliff side itself, that she saw him.
Right there where she had married him five years ago.
Lao Monteleone himself, standing with his back to her.
Chloe wondered if it was possible to be jet-lagged when she had only flown a few hours down to Sicily from England. Because she couldn’t think of any other reason why she suddenly felt so weak.
He turned, then, and the sunlight poured in from above, illuminating the harsh planes of his stern face. And then she found she wasn’t simply weak. She wasn’t even breathless, as usual. She was holding her breath. Completely.
Because it was always like this, and yet always seemed new. Lao was a hard, shocking blow to her solar plexus every time she saw him. As if she’d fallen down and had the breath knocked straight out of her.
He was widely called handsome, though he wasn’t. He was too imposing. Too forbidding. Taken apart, his features were too strong for the kind of male beauty that most admired and therefore graced magazine covers and the like. Those high cheekbones, that ruthless blade of a nose. Starkly sensual lips that were forever pressed in a faintly disapproving line, as now.
He was imposing, though she knew by now that was as much the power that emanated from him as his actual skeletal structure. He was at least six feet and muscled, everywhere, like so many of the statues in the halls of this castle. But his shoulders were wider than anything carved in the Renaissance or since.
Today, he was not dressed in his usual bespoke suit or, mercifully, a thong bathing costume in cobalt blue, though Chloe would not describe him as casual, either. Even lounging mostly naked, gleaming in the Brazilian sun, he had exuded all the might and formality that he always did.
At least today there was no need to swallow her tongue.
Even if she could see a hint of his sun-gold skin at the top of that crisp white button-down shirt he wore.
She had no idea why merely looking at him should make a raw swath of a nearly unbearable ache widen within her.
Only that she was certain he could see it. Just as she was sure that he could see the bright spots of heat still on her cheeks.
“Hello, Lao,” she said, and felt the absurd urge she always did, to break out into giggles like a schoolgirl. She felt that fluttery thing inside her take over, filling up that aching part until it was hard to tell where one bit began and the other ended.
Looking at him felt the same as peering down into the jagged Sicilian canyons that could easily eat her whole.
“Chloe.” Her name on his lips was the same dark poetry it always was, inflected with the magic of his accent, like so much spice. It was a chore not to lick her lips. “I trust your flight was pleasant?”
“Yes, thank you. Very pleasant indeed.”
“I have ordered you some tea,” he said, and she did not miss the emphasis on that last word.
Lao was entirely Italian. He did not understand the English obsession with tea, much less diluted with milk. But was providing it anyway, because that was what he did, she knew. He took care of things, always. It made a different sort of shiver work its way through her that she, alone in all the world, should know this man for the protector he truly was. Not the dark mage of the business world that so many feared, the inscrutable billionaire who had been, at times, the most hated man in Europe. She alone knew better.
His gray eyes flared with a touch of silver heat. “I know how you English rely upon your tea.”
“That sounds lovely.” Chloe would have said it was lovely even if it wasn’t, but the truth was, she could do with a bracing brew to get her head on straight. She needed to stop shivering and aching and start remembering that this trip was supposed to be about gratitude. About thanks and divorce. Not cobalt-blue bathing costumes or that chiseled face of his.
Lao nodded to someone behind her, so she turned her head to see the same butler directing another diffident staff member to set up a full tea service on a polished wood table that looked as if it had been hand carved. Perhaps from the trees on this very mountain.
The silence in the room seemed to grow, then deepen, after his staff retreated yet again.
“You’re very kind,” Chloe said, because she’d promised herself she wouldn’t let this get away from her. That she wouldn’t let her overwhelming foolishness where this man was concerned leave her tongue tied the way it often did. “I want you to know that I appreciate it more than I could possibly express. These past five years have been a wonderful gift. I don’t know what would have become of me without you. It’s thanks to you that I feel ready and capable to carry on now. On my own. But I’ll always remember this, Lao. It was a truly wonderful thing for you to do for me, when technically, you weren’t even my stepbrother anymore.”
He didn’t move, so Chloe wasn’t certain why it was that he seemed to expand then, taking over the whole world. Certainly this room, though the arched glass ceiling that must have been three stories high at least.
His gaze was a thundercloud. “Why do you think I’ve called you here today, Chloe?”
“Oh.” She laughed nervously, though she wasn’t sure why she was laughing at all, or even why she felt so nervous in the first place. This was Lao. Sure, he was big and imposing and overwhelming, but he had never been anything but perfectly kind to her. Sweet, even. Her reaction was the height of exactly the kind of foolishness that had led to Mirabelle calling her a right dozy cow more than once. Mostly affectionately. “Well. I assume that you’re ready to go on with the rest of your life. And that an inconvenient marriage to the daughter of a man I don’t recall you liked all that much anyway might get in the way of that.”
But he only gazed at her, in that same stormy fashion and she found herself too hot, again.
“I’m perfectly happy for you to divorce me, Lao,” she said hurriedly. “Really. You don’t have to worry about me at all.”
“I do not worry about you, because I know you are taken care of,” he told her, in a low, stern tone that did nothing at all to take away that shivering inside her. “But things must change, Chloe. Because I think it is high time. Past time, even.”
“Past time,” she agreed, and once again, lectured herself not to feel that unreasonable sense of disappointment. “I agree.”
“I need an heir,” he told her, and she had the strangest sense that he was being gentle, though there was nothing about his demeanor that would suggest he was capable of it. “And as I already have a wife, I see no reason why she can’t provide me with one.”
“An heir?” Chloe was having trouble keeping up. She swallowed, though her throat didn’t seem to work and her body seemed to have taken itself off for some kind of riot. “Do you…do you mean with me?”
He looked as if he’d made from thunder and too much rain, as wild and untamed as the Sicilian mountain they stood upon. He looked at her as if she was a very small, glass thing he held in the palm of his hand.
She felt as if she was.
“I mean you, Chloe,” Lao said, like he was rendering judgment. Though she was glass straight through and could only seem to concentrate on that brooding heat of his from across the room. “It is time you became my wife in full.”
End of excerpt
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What Her Sicilian Husband Desires
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