“Yes. You’re telling me we’ll live a lie, that we’ll pretend we love each other. I guess I can at least try, since you’re only asking me to do that for a year.”
“Damn it.” His face dark, his voice held a steely note she hated.
“What do you want me to say then?” she asked.
“Kiss me and pretend you mean it.”
She froze. “All right.”
She stood up. So did he. She lifted her lips, standing stiffly, regally.
His eyes narrowed as if something about this whole situation displeased him. Then he leaned forward and caressed her shoulders. Her eyes drifted shut as she waited. Then his mouth found hers and even though his lips barely touched hers, her passion flared to life.
She rose onto her tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck. Then she pressed herself closer, closer, until she could feel his heat and hear the drumbeat of his heart.
He deepened the kiss, and she leaned farther into him, offering herself, offering everything.
He drew back, smiling at her, really smiling at her, for the first time in days. Playfully he kissed the tip of her nose.
“You’re very good at pretending,” he said.
“So are you.”
Eager for more, she pulled his head down to hers again and lost herself in more kisses. He began to say soft, caressing things to her in Italian.
“I love it when you do that.”
He smiled. “I love the language…which melts like kisses and sounds as if it has been writ on satin…syllables which breathe…er…” He struggled for the rest of the line. “Passion.”
“Why, that’s beautiful.”
“Lord Byron, or rather a jumble of Lord Byron. I’m afraid I don’t remember the entire poem.”
“I like it that you can quote poetry. Dante.”
“Memorization is not the loftiest of mental gifts, you know.”
“Don’t belittle yourself,” she said.
“Kissing you is fun. Maybe we should pretend we love each other again,” he said, bringing his mouth closer to hers again.
As he gazed down at her, her heart began to flutter nervously. She wet her lips in anticipation.
Then his mouth found hers again, and his tongue came inside her lips. He groaned. She moved her body against his, rubbing her breasts against his massive chest, wanting to be nearer, nearer, aching to be consumed utterly by him.
“Nico, my darling, darling.”
When more Italian burst from him, her whole body burned with desire.
Was he saying he loved her, or was he only pretending? He took her hand and was leading her into the bedroom, when there was a sound at the door.
Who knows what might have happened next, if his mother hadn’t chosen that moment to appear. As always, she was perfectly groomed and as dazzling as a rare jewel in an absolutely exquisite pink silk suit. Parisian runway, no doubt.
Apologizing politely and lifting her arched brows, she said there was a crisis that needed Nico’s attention immediately.
“Can’t it wait?” he said in a low, irritable tone.
She shook her head and swept from the room, her footsteps growing fainter in the hall.
“Sorry, darling.” There was only a faint echo of passion in his voice. He squeezed Regina’s hand and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
Then he was gone, too, and she was left alone on her stone parapet with only her beautiful view for companionship.
Juliet without her Romeo.
Hugging herself, she leaned against the balustrade, shuddering in frustration. She needed a job, something to do, anything.
But what? What could she do today? She began to pace the balcony. What did a future princess do to amuse herself all day in paradise?
The garden beckoned beneath her. The sunlight was brilliant in the trees. There was an ineffable sweetness of flowers mingling with the scent of the sea.
She dashed out of the red rooms. She would take a walk among the flowers again, a long meditative walk in the garden. She would watch the swans.
When she grew bored with the big white birds, who were content with each other and their placid pond and paid no attention to her, she meandered along the gravel paths until she grew tired of the garden, too. She felt confined, lost.
As she was about to turn back toward the palazzo, she discovered a little gate shrouded with ancient grape vines. A gardener was weeding nearby, so she asked him where the path led.
Yanking an earphone out of his ear, the man stood up. He was dark and thick around the middle. His white shirt was caked with black dirt; his silver curls wet with sweat. His English was as terrible as her Italian, but somehow he managed to make her understand with many smiles and much wild gesticulating that the vine and the path were pre-Roman, that the trail had been used for centuries by the shepherds and their flocks.