She tried to tilt her chin higher so that she could study the ornate ceiling where splashes of turquoise had been combined with crimson and gold. But suddenly her neck hurt, and she realized she’d been awake for many hours and that all she wanted to do was lie down and wait for Nico.
First, she went to the window and opened it, so that she could smell the cool sweetness of the lightly falling rain. Then loosening the buttons of her dress, she went to the bed and pushed the heavy satin spread back and sank tiredly onto the mattress.
Two months ago, it would not have been dark at this hour. Oh, but how nice it was to stretch out horizontally between cool, clean sheets while the rain tap-danced on the balcony and balustrade outside. Her head ached with exhaustion as she strained to hear Nico’s footsteps.
Soon he would come. She tried to stay awake, but slowly, the rain was music that lulled her. And a black curtain came down. And she was gone.
When Nico knocked at the door of the red rooms and called her name, she didn’t answer, so he slipped inside.
The silent room was shrouded in darkness.
Above the patter of the rain, he heard her sweet sigh from the bed. He turned just as the moon peeped through the clouds, bathing the bed and her with its silvery light.
She looked like an enchanted princess. His princess.
Her lovely face was as pale as alabaster; her hair gleamed like dark satin against her pillows. Her chest, sculpted by the white sheets, moved up and down. Her lips were cherry red and he was eager to wake her and kiss her. But she looked so peaceful asleep; so adorable, almost happy.
His heart swelled with desire and with something even more powerful that he refused to consider. She had not looked like this since he’d dropped her at Fumichino two months ago after they’d made love the whole way to Rome. How her eyes had glimmered with tears at their parting. How she’d clung to him, kissing his cheeks and lips and then burying her face deep into his chest. And only after she’d walked away with Massimo and he’d watched the exact spot where she’d vanished for more than half an hour, the longest thirty minutes in his life, had he even begun to realize how deeply he might need her.
Who was she really? A cynical opportunist who’d used him? Or the gentle, passionate woman he’d fallen in love with?
He didn’t care. Whoever she was, he wanted her. Something had begun that he was powerless to stop. From the first, when she’d waved at Grand-mère from the bench under the lemon tree, he’d wanted her more than he’d ever wanted any woman. And the wanting had only grown more fierce.
Why? Why her?
Did why ever matter? Some things just were. From the beginning, he’d been in over his head, his passion having assumed a life of its own.
Love. War. Birth. Death. Human beings thought they could control such matters, but they were an arrogant, doomed species whose passions ruled them.
He stood over her for an hour, his shadow falling across her pale face. The dinner hour came and went, and yet he felt compelled to stay and watch over her. At least, when she was asleep, he could protect her from the forces in this house, in his world, even from the forces within himself that resented and threatened her.
Finally, he leaned down and kissed her lips gently. She stirred and smiled. When she whispered his name, he wanted to kiss her again and again. But he knew that if he did so, he would not stop.
The first thing Regina noticed when she awakened at dawn was the pink sun streaming through the long windows, filling the beautiful room with soft feathers of early light. She felt the pillow beside her and realized she was alone.
Nico had not come.
A t eight o’clock sharp, a young maid with creamy skin and a white apron announced to Regina in a beautiful Polish accent that breakfast was to be served on the north terrace at nine and that she would be back to fetch her.
“Where’s Nico? I mean, Prince Nico?”
The pretty maid looked confused. “Sorry, signorina. Princess Gloriana told me to come. That’s all I know.”
She curtsied and was about to go when Regina called her back.
“I’ve been up and dressed for hours. I would like to walk in the garden. Could you show me the way and then come find me there?”
“As you wish, madame.”
Nico had not come. With a sickening feeling of abandonment, she followed the girl outside to the pool where the swans made ripples across its dark, glassy surface. Birds were singing in the cypress trees. Exotic blossoms bloomed in the flower beds even though it was autumn.
Some variety of flower must bloom all year here in this centuries-old paradise. But where was Nico? She glanced up at the palazzo and thought she saw a tall, dark man and a blond woman at a long window watching her. Then they vanished, and she wondered if they’d seen her or if she’d merely imagined them.