Then like a toddler restrained too long, she burst out of her chair. The ancient chair groaned, and when she began to pace the parquet floor, Abruzzi’s brooding gaze followed her as it seemed the painted eyes of Nico’s ancestors did, as well. Feeling selfconscious, she walked the length of the golden oak-and-porcelain-filled Gothic sitting room and then retraced her steps.
She stopped in front of a portrait of a staid, elderly man in red velvet, who had a particularly disquieting stare. A cardinal? One of Nico’s predecessors? Had he been painted by one of the old masters? When she moved closer to inspect the artist’s signature, Abruzzi stepped closer.
Warned, she jumped back from the painting, and like a shadow, he receded to his former place. Afraid that the glittering antique glass-and-gem-studded snuff boxes on all the little tables were worth a fortune, Regina steered clear of them as she continued walking.
Feeling trapped and out of place in such dazzling surroundings, she stepped to a tall window and looked out at the lush, sloping lawns. Two white swans gliding serenely on a dark pool caught her attention.
How she envied them their beautiful garden. Was it only yesterday that Nico had brought her here and told her who he really was and all that was expected of him?
Not wanting to dwell on any of that, she went back to her chair and sank down again onto the hard little cushion. No sooner had the spindly wooden legs made a cracking sound again than she wanted to spring to her feet once more.
Instead, she tilted her head back and stared up at the ornate ceiling, where a profusion of angels swirled in colorful, painted robes.
When had it been painted? What story had been in the artist’s mind? Beneath the ceiling, a chandelier from a later period blazed like ten thousand diamonds. Not that she had the slightest idea what period that might be.
Nico had probably been taught from birth the value of all these items. No doubt he appreciated their artistic worth. He was accustomed to fine things, fine homes. He knew famous people.
The Nico she knew saluted girls in bars with his beer bottle, went dancing on mountaintops at midnight, made love in dark sea caves. That Nico laughed and was tender, and she thought he had shown her something of his secret, innermost self. But his real life, the ordinary, methodic rhythm of his days, was spent here.
His tall, reed-thin mother hadn’t said a word about how unsuitable Regina was. She’d simply left her in this room with its priceless furniture and jeweled snuff boxes, and the room had spoken volumes.
Regina thought of her parents’ cluttered, three-bedroom tract house with its framed prints and recliners. She was from ordinary, middle-class, all-American stock, and more fortunate than most. But an accident of birth had thrown Nico into an extraordinarily exalted position that she could never belong to or begin to understand.
Impossible relationships. My specialty, she thought.
Measured footsteps rang faintly from the hall. Hoping for Nico, Regina sprang to her feet just as his tall, sharp-featured mother glided inside. Regina tried to smile, but her lips wouldn’t move. His mother, obviously more practiced than Regina, managed a tight little pursing at the edges of her mouth.
“I didn’t do this on purpose,” Regina stammered.
A draft of icy air gusted between them in the ensuing silence.
His mother’s lips moved. “Still, I’m sure you must understand how difficult this is for the family.”
“Well, we’ll have to carry on the best way we know how,” the PrincipessaDonnaGlorianaLuciaRomano said. “This, too, shall pass, as they say.” Again the rigid lifting at the corners of her mouth. “At least the press doesn’t know who you are, and if you don’t tell them—”
Where was Nico?
“Surely you don’t think that I would—”
The PrincipessaDonnaGloriana arched her brows. “Of course not,” she said softly.
Clearly, Gloriana saw Regina as the enemy.
“Massimo has arranged a new airline ticket for you. First class. Tonight.”
So, she was to be bought off with a first-class ticket.
Gloriana nodded, her decorum flawless. Did Regina only imagine that she had a keen talent for using her careful manners and her regal bearing as weapons? Never had Regina felt more common and uncouth, nor so entirely inappropriate for Nico.
“Where’s Nico?” Regina asked, in a crushed voice she barely recognized.
“Right here,” rang his deep, cold voice from the doorway. “Did my mother tell you that everything has been arranged?”
Feeling even more chilled by the coldness in his tone, Regina nodded.
“Mother, we’d better go,” he said.