When they rounded a curve in the gravel path and she saw her Fiat, she said, “Just take me to my hotel.”
He stopped. “Listen to me. This is only one of my homes. Now. It is mine now. Before my marriage. Or rather, it is one of my family’s many homes. It might interest you to know that it has been in the family seven hundred years.”
She stared at him. Was he serious?
“Do you work for these people or something?” she asked gently.
“Oh, most definitely.” He smiled, but his eyes were wary and cold. “If we went inside, you would be greeted with dozens of gilded chambers hung with tapestries and baroque chandeliers, not to mention paintings by the great masters, as well as paintings of my ancestors—who resemble me.”
“Really? I’m sure it’s all very lovely.”
“The older woman you saw in the Maserati is my grandmother. Only don’t ever tell her I said she was old. The blonde you saw me with is my mother, the PrincipessaDonnaGlorianaRomano. My father, Principe Don Livio Carlo Romano, died five years ago. My mother wants me, his heir, to do my duty and marry the Principessa Donna Viola Eugenia di Frezano. In fact, my mother is insisting upon it. Yesterday, I gave her my word that I would call Viola, whose family is as eager for the marriage as mine. The paparazzi, not that they know anything, say I’m the most eligible bachelor in Europe.”
She stared at his dark, patrician brow which was knit, at his aquiline nose, at his magnificent warrior’s physique and felt an unpleasant jolt of recognition. He looked tough and arrogant enough to be a conquering prince of old. And he did look a little familiar.
“You’re a prince? You’re really a prince?” Regina searched his incredibly handsome face for some sign of triumph or conceit. Humility was all she saw.
“I wish to hell I wasn’t,” he said. “I wish to hell I could change who I am and follow the path of my heart, which would be a life with you, tesorina.”
Tall, dark and handsome…and an Italian prince to boot. If only she were a princess, too, maybe her life could be a fairy tale.
But Viola was the princess in this fairy tale.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” Regina said grimly.
“You must understand—I cannot betray my family.”
“I do understand.” Her heart was thundering, threatening to explode. “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t tell me the truth in the beginning.”
“Not good enough!”
“All those people in the bar knew who you were?”
“Including those girls who were flirting with you?”
“You deliberately made a fool of me!”
“No. At first, I thought you knew. Later, I played along with your fantasy.”
Her feet crunched noisily in the gravel as she strode to her car. She opened the passenger side door for herself. He got in behind the wheel.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Just take me home.”
He started the Fiat. “You could stay…indefinitely,” he said.
“Are you asking me to be your mistress?”
He was gracious enough not to restate his intent.
“We could sleep together while you courted and married your princess?” Regina let out a long sigh and then a little scream. She banged the dashboard with her fists just as she’d banged on so many tables in courtrooms. Then she turned to him again.
“Ohhh! You think I’d settle for that? How could you even ask me such a thing?”
“I love you. I want you. It might be the only way.”
“Haven’t you got any principles?”
“I thought I did, until I met you.”
“Do people like you, princes who live in palazzos, I mean, get everything they want, just because they want it?”
“No. They follow the rules. They are taught that all that matters is influence, power and money. They are taught to marry one of their own kind, so that they can perpetuate their families’ titles, pedigrees and traditions on the solid foundations of their wedded fortunes. It’s all exceedingly dull.”
“Poor little rich prince, who must try to get richer and richer. I’m not going to feel sorry for you, you know.”
“I’m not asking you to. I just want you to understand my future engagement. Viola’s family is richer than mine. The tax man is vicious. For a thousand years my family has lived here and in palazzos grander than this.”
“And they want to be in them for another thousand?”
“Aristocrats do tend to take the long view. Unfortunately, my father lost quite a lot of money, so the family’s future rests on my shoulders.”