She began to walk along the intricate gravel paths that wound through the beautiful garden overhanging the sea, this garden that seemed more fantasy than reality. At first, she tried to concentrate on the crunching sound her feet made so that she wouldn’t dwell on Nico or the multitude of questions that tortured her heart.
Then she began to enjoy the glories of the garden with its mountains that climbed to the sky on one side and the blue sea that stretched forever on the other.
Her verdant surroundings were so beautiful that soon her walk took over. Her mood became meditative, and she opened her heart to infinite possibilities.
She was here. She was to marry Nico. All her life she’d thought she could plan and that her ambitions and work would take her where she wanted. But she’d lost touch with herself. She’d done things she wasn’t proud of. She’d wanted more than her career, more than marriage to a respected professional. Only, she hadn’t known what more was until now. No man had ever felt so right as Nico, who was from this extravagant world that she had never even imagined.
Life was so much more mysterious than she’d bargained for. One never knew what the next moment would be or bring. As she stared at the palazzo, she couldn’t begin to imagine what her life would be like as his wife.
The maid came as she’d promised, startling Regina out of her reverie and then leading her back inside. Regina followed through what seemed like miles of galleries and sitting rooms, all filled with rococo, neoclassical and Louis XVI furnishings. Through the centuries, Romanos must have collected these beautiful things and designed rooms to display them advantageously. As always, the beauty of the palazzo dazzled and overwhelmed her as the garden and its simple pleasures had not.
Suddenly, a door opened, and a slim blond woman, a younger version of Nico’s mother, emerged into the hall. Then, as if to catch her breath or regain her composure after some unfortunate encounter, the woman stopped and stood outside the door for a long moment. Then lifting her chin, she turned and headed straight for Regina.
She had fine, delicate features; soft, light-colored hair and luminous violet eyes. Her complexion glowed. She was exquisite and so perfectly made that, except for her stricken expression, she seemed more like a doll than a human.
Principessa Donna Viola Eugenia di Frezano.
Regina gasped in awe and then compassion swept her.
Viola had frozen, too. Then without a word, the princess turned and fled, but not before Regina had seen that her cheeks were streaked with tears.
No servant needed to lead Viola through the maze of gilded rooms. Clearly, even blinded by tears, she knew this maze of ornate rooms by heart.
When Regina looked inside the door from which Viola had come, she saw a grim-faced Nico staring out a tall window. Was it the same window where she’d seen the couple watching her?
He turned, his expression dazed. For a long moment, it was as if she weren’t there.
Was he brokenhearted over having lost Viola?
“Cara?” His dark face registered surprise. He stood up straighter. “Did you sleep well?” His tone was polite, formal.
Regina found his perfect manners, so like his mother’s, unendurable. Were they to be man and wife and yet strangers, never to talk about what mattered?
“You said you’d come for me.”
“You were asleep.”
“I just saw Viola,” she whispered.
“For the first and last time.”
“You broke your engagement with her?”
“I explained the situation to her. She was very understanding.”
“She looked hurt, devastated.”
“I never told her about us, you see. Her staff will speak to the press later today.”
“And what will she say?”
“Whatever she wants to say. She will have to move on. As we all will.”
“I’m sorry for all the trouble. If you love her, if you prefer her…”
“It is done.” He crossed the space that separated them, and yet he felt as far away as ever. “Shall we go down to breakfast together?”
He took her hand. His palm felt cold, and she noticed that he did not bring her fingers to his lips.
“My mother is expecting us.”
Would they eat with her every morning? Would they never be alone like a normal couple? Share their own private confidences? Have their own lives? Were they always to live here, with his family?
If only they could have eaten alone this morning.
The Principessa Gloriana was already at a table shaded by a melon-colored umbrella. As they walked up to her, hand in hand, she sipped coffee, patted her lipstick with her napkin, and then gave Nico a chilly smile. Again, she treated Regina as if she didn’t exist.